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Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Power Play Over New Orleans Schools Involved Large Cast

Power Play Over New Orleans Schools Involved Large Cast

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Shortly after 5 p.m. one day last month, a one-page notice rolled off the fax machine at the home office of Jimmy Fahrenholtz, a member of the Orleans Parish, La., school board. It announced a special board meeting the next evening to "consider and/or act on" three items, including the "performance of Superintendent Anthony Amato."

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View the timeline, "A Day-by-Day Drama," and the accompanying story, "Schools Probe in City Yields Theft Charges."

Right away, Mr. Fahrenholtz smelled trouble. Some of his colleagues on the New Orleans board were upset with the superintendent, whom they accused of supporting a bill moving through the Louisiana legislature that would sharply limit the board’s authority. What’s more, Mr. Amato planned to be out of town the next day.

"I knew that Tony was going to be fired," Mr. Fahrenholtz recalled thinking.

That was Thursday, June 3. For the next seven days, the 70,000-student New Orleans public schools would be gripped in an extraordinary power struggle played out in the courts, the state legislature, and the news media. Teachers staged protests. District leaders traded harsh accusations. Angry callers flooded the switchboards of radio talk shows.

In many ways, it was a classic tale of school board infighting. Eighteen months ago, the board hired Mr. Amato, a nationally known superintendent, to rescue the district from academic and financial ruin. Since then, the seven-member panel has become increasingly divided over how effective he has been.

But what took place in New Orleans last month included some unusual twists. A federal court order blocked the superintendent’s firing. Community groups spoke out in favor of curtailing the power of their city’s school board. State lawmakers stepped in to give greater authority to the superintendent, and in doing so, created a new model for state intervention in district governance.

Leadership upheaval is nothing new in New Orleans. Amid scandals and school board politics, the district has had eight superintendents and interim schools chiefs over the past decade. Mr. Amato’s predecessor, a retired Marine colonel without experience working in education, resigned before his contract ran out.

Questioned Loyalties

The fuse for last month’s turmoil was lit in May, when the Louisiana House of Representatives took up legislation known as House Bill 1659, aimed at limiting micromanagement by school boards in the state’s lowest-performing districts.

For districts declared "academically in crisis," the bill shifted decisionmaking authority over budget and personnel from the board to the superintendent. It required a two-thirds vote, instead of a simple majority, to fire a district schools chief. New Orleans, with 54 of its 130 schools labeled academically unacceptable by the state, was the only district meeting the measure’s criteria for being declared in crisis.

The legislation was the brainchild of a civic group called the Committee for a Better New Orleans/Metropolitan Area Committee, which wanted to stem the district’s cycle of leadership turnover and address complaints that some board members have interfered in routine operations.

"The community needs a better sense of who is in charge, and who is responsible," said Mtumishi St. Julien, a member of the group, which includes leaders of local businesses and nonprofit groups.

Some New Orleans board members took the bill as a slap in the face. What others saw as micromanagement, they defended as proper oversight. Believing that Mr. Amato had a hand in the legislation, they challenged him to explain why it was needed. Carolyn Green Ford, the vice president of the board, said another public official, whom she wouldn’t name, had called the measure "the superintendent’s bill."

"I said, ‘Well, why didn’t he come in and say, ‘Look, you’re not letting me do my job,’" Ms. Ford said in an interview.

Mr. Amato says he had nothing to do with the measure. "Any superintendent knows that the involvement of that superintendent in the governance structure, or being a player in that, only leads to disaster," he said in an interview.

Still, tensions boiled over when the full House passed the bill, 74-20, on Tuesday, June 1. Two days later, board President Cheryl E. Mills sent out the notice of a special meeting that Friday to take up the superintendent’s job performance.

Mr. Fahrenholtz and another board member who backs the superintendent, Una Anderson, found the timing of the meeting suspicious. It was scheduled for a day when Mr. Amato had planned to travel to his native Puerto Rico for a family reunion. "They wanted to get Tony out, and someone else in, before the bill passed," Mr. Fahrenholtz claimed.

The two Amato supporters felt losing him would be disastrous. In his previous job as the superintendent in Hartford, Conn., Mr. Amato had gained a national reputation by showing impressive gains in test scores in a 24,000-student district that had been taken over by the state. Knowing that Louisiana lawmakers were considering imposing state control on the New Orleans district, the two board members saw the superintendent as the system’s last hope to improve itself.

"I think we have one of the most innovative urban-reform superintendents in the country, and I think the list of urban-reform superintendents is very short," said Ms. Anderson.

A Federal Case

Some other board members said they didn’t know Mr. Amato might be out of town that Friday. Ms. Mills, the board president, who reportedly had been notified of Mr. Amato’s travel plans, did not return calls for comment for this story. Ms. Ford, the board vice president, said that there was no "plot" to fire him that day, but that some members had wanted to talk to the superintendent about his alleged involvement in the state bill and a "breakdown in communication."

"We don’t know what would have happened after our discussion," Ms. Ford said.

Not wanting to wait to find out, Mr. Fahrenholtz and Ms. Anderson decided to sue their fellow board members. They called the chairman of the regional chamber of commerce, who also is a partner in one of the city’s top law firms, Jones Walker. The firm agreed to represent them pro bono, and assigned several lawyers.

Friday afternoon, June 4, the lawyers hurriedly put together a plea for a temporary restraining order to be issued before the 5:30 p.m. board meeting. In federal court, they argued that summarily firing Mr. Amato would interfere with the two board members’ duty to uphold the due-process rights guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

They also maintained that four of Mr. Amato’s critics on the board had violated state sunshine laws by discussing his possible termination at an NAACP gathering the night before the board meeting was to take place. The four board members deny having talked about the matter at the event.

The restraining order came down just as the Friday board meeting got under way. Ms. Anderson, who had rushed from the courtroom to the district’s offices, announced the news to a crowd of teachers and others who had gathered outside after hearing that the superintendent might be fired.

Inside, some of Mr. Amato’s opponents on the board made clear their feelings toward the superintendent—who wasn’t present, though he had canceled his trip to Puerto Rico. Board member Elliot C. Willard again suggested that Mr. Amato had something to do with the legislation just passed by the state House.

"I wish he were here so I could ask him one question," Mr. Willard said. "And my question is: What is it that this new legislation will do for him that we have not done? Where have we been neglectful of our duties and respect toward him?"

Board leaders vowed to fight the restraining order as soon as the courts opened the next week.

As they headed to their cars that Friday night, followed by television cameras, board members walked a gantlet of protesters. While some denounced the superintendent, most spoke out in his favor. Educators hoisted signs reading: "Teachers for Amato because Amato is for children." Others simply chanted: "We want Amato!"

Brown Ruling Cited

The two sides then took their cases to the public. Board member Ellenese Brooks-Simms, one of the superintendent’s most vocal opponents, released a 51-page report over the weekend charging that Mr. Amato had failed to raise test scores and fix the district’s operations since arriving in February of 2003.

On Monday, June 7, the superintendent, who had previously maintained a low profile, called in reporters to counter the Brooks-Simms report. His detractors on the board held their own event that day to again denounce the bill they suspected him of supporting. In a third press conference on Monday, the Committee for a Better New Orleans reiterated that Mr. Amato had nothing to do with the measure.

As the education committee of the state Senate prepared to take up the legislation on Tuesday, the two camps of board members converged at the city’s federal courthouse. True to their pledge, the members of the anti-Amato faction asked U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous to dissolve the temporary restraining order, which they said interfered with their authorities as elected officials. They said the superintendent’s job agreement allowed the board to unilaterally buy out his contract.

Lawyers for Mr. Fahrenholtz and Ms. Anderson countered that state law prohibited doing so without due process. They also justified the federal jurisdiction by citing a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court case, Bush v. Orleans School Board, in which the plaintiffs won a federal order to keep district leaders from carrying out segregationist polices adopted by the state.

Andrew Lee, the lead counsel for the two board members, stressed the link to the 43-year-old case in his oral arguments. "Not since the days of desegregation," he said, "have members of the Orleans Parish school board had to seek injunctive relief from this court in order to prevent public officials from denying others their constitutionally protected rights under the 14th Amendment."

That afternoon, Judge Porteous upheld the restraining order by forbidding the board to hold any meetings to discuss firing the superintendent without giving Mr. Amato a hearing and proper notice.

In doing so, the judge cited Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down segregated systems of public schooling. Noting that Brown made clear the implications of denying students an education, he said that firing Mr. Amato without cause would create "further disruptions in the school system" that could violate students’ rights.

‘It’s About Children’

The drama’s final act played out at the Louisiana Capitol. While the lawyers were before Judge Porteous on Tuesday, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was in Baton Rouge addressing the Senate education committee on the bill that had set off the turmoil. The first-term governor, a Democrat, had pushed legislators to put the measure on a fast track after the events of the previous week.

In her testimony, Gov. Blanco argued that the measure wasn’t just directed at New Orleans. It would apply to any district where more than 30 schools—or where more than half the schools—were considered by the state to be academically unacceptable. As standards rise in the coming years, she predicted, other systems will join New Orleans in being declared "academically in crisis."

At the same time, she emphasized the need for greater stability in the leadership of the New Orleans district. She beseeched the city’s school board members to "set aside their anxiety about the bill" and to look beyond the tumult of the past week. "It’s about children, it’s not about adults," she said. "But adults have the responsibility for overseeing what happens in the lives of children."

The next day, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 39-0. By then, supporters had succeeded in fending off amendments they said would weaken it.

Gov. Blanco signed the bill on Thursday, June 10. The law immediately changed the calculus in New Orleans. Firing Mr. Amato—which Judge Porteous had already said couldn’t be done without due process—would require the assent of five of the city’s seven board members. Only four had been especially critical of him over the past week.

The two camps reached a legal truce. The Amato supporters backed off from a legal effort to force some of their colleagues on the board to abstain in any future vote on the superintendent’s contract. And the superintendent’s critics pledged to abide by the restraining order indefinitely.

"I’m not going to continue participating in the rift here," Ms. Ford, the vice president, said in an interview. "That just keeps the bad feelings going. We need to heal."

But the saga promises to continue. A group of New Orleans residents has filed a lawsuit challenging the state legislation as a violation of federal voting laws. And in September, all of the school board seats will be up for election.

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Pages 6-7

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