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Divided New Orleans Board Debates Reopening Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — September 23, 2005 4 min read
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In trying to reopen schools after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school board is contending not only with issues of money and safety, but also with more of the dissension and racially charged politics that have marked its business for years.

Board members interviewed last week disagreed on whether a plan was in place to reopen perhaps a dozen schools in the West Bank neighborhood on Nov. 1. Some board members also tried this month to replace the district’s acting superintendent, a move that was quashed amid accusations of racism.

The seven-member board’s vice president, Lourdes Moran, sighed last week as she assessed the state of affairs on the panel.

“I thought it would get better [after the hurricane],” she said. “I’m disappointed that it hasn’t. I’d have to say it’s pretty dysfunctional.”

Steven Alschuler, a spokesman for New York City-based Alvarez & Marsal, the crisis-management company that was hired in June to run the district’s operations, said the company and school board members were all “on the same page in terms of their goals and their overall vision,” with reopening schools in a safe manner the top priority.

But board members were still in disagreement last week about the type of leadership that would best fulfill that vision.

At a Sept. 15 board meeting in Baton Rouge, La., the first since the storm, one board member had proposed that William V. Roberti, the Alvarez & Marsal managing director who is in charge of the district’s restructuring, replace Ora L. Watson as acting superintendent. The item fell short of the five votes it needed to be placed on the agenda.

Persistent Differences

Board members decried what they said were the racial politics at play, noting that the panel’s one Hispanic and three white members supported replacing Ms. Watson, who is black, and that the three African-American members opposed it.

Jimmy Fahrenholtz, a white panelist, said he believes the hurricane-driven crisis calls for greater expertise in leading the district’s operations. He said he resents his view being interpreted as a move to disenfranchise the black families who make up a majority of the population in New Orleans.

“The race card got played immediately,” he said. “It’s shameful.”

Torin Sanders, the board’s president and an African-American, said Ms. Watson holds a doctorate and is highly qualified to lead the district. Racial dynamics were “clearly evident” in the bid to replace her, he said.

“She represents the student population and the parents of the district,” he said. “It baffled me to think that someone of that caliber isn’t qualified to run the district.”

Ms. Watson could not be reached for comment. Mr. Roberti said only that the board “needs to decide who they want to lead their system.”

For some, the uncertainty and divisiveness provided ample reason to stay away from a school system long plagued by financial, political, and academic problems.

Sabrina Cochran monitored developments in the district online from her home in Tampa, Fla., where her family moved after Katrina left her and her husband jobless. Their son, a 1st grader, attended New Orleans schools for preschool and kindergarten.

“We have no intentions of returning, especially after reports that the school system is still unable to get things together and the school meetings … are filled with the same old undermining issues,” she wrote in an e-mail to Education Week. “No one could pay me enough to torture my son and send him back to the thing they call the education system in New Orleans.”

Many education experts and policymakers have called for dramatic new efforts to overhaul the district in the wake of the hurricane, which forced most New Orleanians out of the city and flooded many schools.(“New Orleans Eyed as Clean Educational Slate,” Sept. 21, 2005.)

How Firm a Plan?

At the Sept. 15 meeting, board members listened to presentations by Alvarez & Marsal and Ms. Watson about plans to reopen some schools—mostly in the drier West Bank area of the city—by Nov. 1 or Jan. 1. But any plans remained preliminary last week, given the possibility of new flooding or other disruption from Hurricane Rita.

Mr. Sanders said last week that “the consensus” was to try to reopen 10 or 12 schools by Nov. 1, but that the plan would “proceed cautiously” because of the unpredictable weather and lack of key services.

Mr. Fahrenholtz had a different impression. “We have no plan to do that,” he said of reopening some schools that soon. “It was discussed, that’s all. We shouldn’t open until we can open enough schools to take care of all the kids available.”

Mr. Roberti of Alvarez & Marsal said no reopening plan was final. A team of engineers, environmental experts, and others visited 21 schools and “got an idea of what it would take” to get some of them open, he said. But issues of money and of health and safety were unresolved.

“We don’t have enough data yet to say whether we agree those schools should open,” Mr. Roberti said. “We need to have a plan we can present to the board.”

How any reopened schools would be staffed was still in question. Brenda Mitchell, the president of United Teachers of New Orleans, said last week that her union was trying to ascertain which teachers were available to work in reopened schools. Discussions would also have to be held with the school board, she said, to work out any issues raised by their resumption of work, including how to decide which teachers to hire back.

Alvarez & Marsal assured New Orleans teachers, who are no longer being paid, that their health benefits would remain intact through September even if they could not find other employment. Mr. Alschuler said plans were being made to continue employee coverage in some fashion after this month. “People aren’t going to be cut off,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as Divided New Orleans Board Debates Reopening Schools

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