Tales From The School Board Sinkholes

In the space of the last week, we have stories from school boards in three of Louisiana’s four largest markets which would call into question whether they’re worth continuing as a way to run education.

Let’s start in Lafayette, where respected superintendent Pat Cooper, who is credited with turning around two other systems and has already done creditable work in improving the Lafayette Parish Schools, is now under fire from members of the school board

The Lafayette Parish School Board will hire a private law firm to conduct an investigation into Superintendent Pat Cooper.

The Gretna-based Grant and Barrow firm will be charged with looking into unspecified complaints against Cooper. Board member Rae Trahan initially made the request.

“My suggestion is that we employ a special counsel to investigate any allegations that may be floating around out there, and there are many, and we get a very quick report back to put all of those issues to rest and move on,” Trahan said.

Trahan said she is not looking to get Cooper fired but wants to clear the air about some ongoing issues. Trahan did not specify the nature of any complaints or concerns.

“If he is innocent, he will be proven innocent of anything. That was the intent of that resolution,” Trahan said.

Cooper said he was surprised by the request and that Trahan has never brought any issues or concerns to his attention.

“Part of my contract says if you hear concerns, you immediately bring it to the superintendent’s attention. That hasn’t been done,” Cooper said. “The way this thing is written, it’s kind of like a witch hunt.”

Trahan doesn’t exactly have a glowing reputation on that school board. Last year the Lafayette Independent did a cover story about the 17 absences from school board meetings she had racked up in the first seven months of the year, and had noted she voted against Cooper’s plan to relieve severe overcrowding in the schools in her own district…

Fast forward to the July 18 regular board meeting, which Viator attended to publicly ask for the board’s support in approving the bond sales and allowing progress to begin in Youngsville. The school board voted 5-4 to approve the bond sales. Trahan, one of four board members comprising a minority bloc that routinely teams up in opposition to Cooper’s initiatives, voted against the new construction to address overcrowding in her district. Say what?

What was Trahan’s rationale for not backing the mayor of her hometown and abandoning the students in her district in desperate need of classroom space? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. Trahan, a former LPSS school bus driver who admittedly decided to run for the board seat out of concerns that former Super Dr. James Easton would attempt to privatize the bus system, did not return calls made to her home, her cell phone and her bead shop in Youngsville.

“That’s a good question,” says Viator, who admits he hasn’t contacted Trahan since she cast the inexplicable vote against the interests of her own district.

The common perception in Lafayette is that the school board there is dumb and getting dumber, and that it’s an obstacle to progress.

Meanwhile, in Orleans Parish there’s another example of a school board run by idiots. For this, we actually have audio…

Seth Bloom And Conservatives

What you heard there was Seth Bloom, a lawyer who’s under a deferred bar suspension for misusing client funds (so he’s a perfect fit for the school board in a district which spends better than $14,000 per student per year, right?), accusing conservatives of not caring about minorities.

Bloom’s dumb statement sent Jay Batt, the Chairman of the Republican Orleans Parish Executive Committee, former New Orleans City Councilman and President of the Sugar Bowl Committee, into the stratosphere…

It is a shame that Mr. Bloom has decided to engage in this divisive rhetoric. Conservatives have always strongly supported the rights of all. We will continue to have racial strife when public office holders attempt to use race to their advantage. Racism and inequality are simply not in the mindset of the “conservative”. We truly believe in “liberty and justice” across the board. Justice and liberty are not subject to division by race, color or creed.

He knows what he stated was untrue, and to paint all republicans and conservatives with the same brush is beneath him. This is politics however and it appears nothing is beneath Mr. Bloom. An apology from Mr. Bloom for making such a blanket statement is clearly deserved.

What’s interesting here is that Bloom, for all his race-baiting bluster, might actually be one of the better members of the OPSB. From a couple of months ago

The Orleans Parish School Board is digging in its heels against an audit request by the New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, and Quatrevaux is getting fed up. He said that his office first sent a letter requesting a meeting on Nov. 29. Almost seven months later, the School Board is still putting up a fight.

Read the letters

School Board counsel responded challenging the inspector general’s jurisdiction, using arguments that are “totally without merit” and that have been shot down in case law, Quatrevaux said. Would he sue the School Board? “Absolutely,” Quatrevaux said. “If they want to do it the hard way, we’ll do it the hard way.”

It will probably be not one audit but a series, he said.

The School Board’s legal committee discussed the matter in executive session Thursday afternoon but did not take any actions requiring a vote. However, committee chair Seth Bloom, a criminal defense lawyer, said earlier in the day that he supported an investigation.

“I am completely in favor of the OIG auditing us,” he said. “To show that we’re doing everything right, to show we have nothing to hide, I welcome it.” He said the request to audit was not a response to any allegations of wrongdoing.

Except things didn’t work out the way Bloom said he wanted them to. This was from Tuesday’s Times-Pic…

The Orleans Parish School Board got in the first punch in its courtroom fight with the New Orleans office of inspector general. Faced withInspector General Ed Quatrevaux vowing to file suit in Civil District Court to enforce a subpoena for financial records, the School Board sued Monday to quash the subpoena.

It came on the same day of Quatrevaux’s deadline for the School Board to submit a long list of documents for the fiscal years ending June 30, 2011, and 2012. Quatrevaux said Monday he wants to make sure pre-Hurricane Katrina corruption problems hadn’t recurred.

The argument continues to center on whether the inspector general has the authority to audit the School Board and more specifically what, exactly, counts as “receiving funds through the city.” Quatrevaux’s office has quoted a state law that says local inspector generals have the authority to audit “entities receiving funds through or for the benefit of the local governmental subdivision,” such as the city of New Orleans.

Bloom’s comments about conservatives came amid an OPSB meeting last Tuesday night that was a three-ring circus of identity politics and abject hackery

The topic at hand was the school system’s anti-bullying policy. It says students deserve a positive learning environment regardless of a long list of characteristics that might trigger attacks, including race, religion, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, physical characteristics and so on. It sets out the definition of bullying and requires staff to report and investigate any incidents.

The board was considering seemingly minor changes that included moving the list from one section of the policy to another. It affects only the five schools that the Orleans Parish School Board runs directly; the rest of the schools under its jurisdiction are charters that may write their own anti-bullying policies.

So practically, not much was at stake. But because the amendments came immediately after a huge fight over whether to fire interim Superintendent Stan Smith, everyone’s trigger locks were off.

Ellison and board member Cynthia Cade expressed their opposition to listing traits anywhere in the bullying policy. To which member Seth Bloom, who is gay, said, pointedly: “I just find it perplexing that certain minorities seek protection for certain minorities but not for others.”

Ellison, who is black, took him up on it. “This has nothing to do with being black. I can’t change my blackness at all.”

There were audible gasps in the room. The American Psychological Association has stated that sexual orientation is not a matter of personal choice.

The exchange was all the more cutting because half an hour earlier, black activist Pat Bryant had called on Bloom, who is Jewish, to support black people. Bryant’s reasoning: Jews and blacks historically worked together in the South to fight oppression.

Ellison also opposed a line in the policy amendments to require that the anti-bullying philosophy be “integrated with the school’s curriculum, discipline policies and other violence prevention efforts.” She said it meant 5-year-olds would be taught about gay sex.

Speaking of three-ring circuses, we now take you to East Baton Rouge Parish, where the state’s most dysfunctional school board, fresh off kinda-sorta defeating a plan to create a breakaway district in Southeast Baton Rouge, is now hustling to prevent the Recovery School District from taking over a pair of failed schools it runs…

The Louisiana Department of Education has denied the East Baton Rouge Parish School System’s requests to revamp two low-scoring schools, putting Delmont Elementary and Mayfair Middle at risk of state takeovers. In a letter to EBR Superintendent Bernard Taylor, State Superintendent John White says the proposed plan “forcibly moves hundreds of [students] to different school sites with no guarantee of admission to a school with a strong track record,” and “seeks to expunge the record of struggles for which the sate’s accountability system holds the East Baton Rouge School Board responsible.” The letter continues an ongoing feud, with White arguing that EBR is moving students around to boost grades of troubled schools and avoid state takeovers, while the system says its changes serve valid academic purposes and are made openly with community input. Delmont, which serves pre-K through fifth grade, would have been converted to a new school serving only pre-K and kindergarten, while Mayfair would have become Mayfair Laboratory, serving kindergarten through eighth grade, the letter says. The schools have received “F” grades from the state for three years in a row; another year of “academically unacceptable” status could leave either school subject to being taken over by the state. The department approved several other requested changes, including the closure of Wyandotte Early Childhood Center. An EBR spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment.

In the debate about the Southeast ISD, one of the more contentious issues was EBR’s practice of shuffling good students around from one school to another in order to keep school scores out of failing territory where the RSD would seize them.

That’s pretty scandalous. But for EBR, it’s mild. After all, the school board here hired Taylor as the superintendent after he’d been fired at a similar position in Grand Rapids, one of the reasons for which being – according to the grapevine – that he hired his boyfriend as an assistant and paid him a hefty salary to do very little. Turns out that said boyfriend is now on staff in Baton Rouge as the Executive Assistant to the Superintendent for Parent/Community Engagement, whatever that means.

By the way, the RSD is castigated by the status quo types for having an overall poor score – the RSD’s state division has an overall score of F, while the RSD in New Orleans is a D. But what the educrats won’t tell you is that RSD schools are among the fastest-improving in the state. In fact, the New Orleans RSD schools have gone from a district performance score of 51.4 in 2008 to a 76.7 last year, a 49.22 percent improvement that blows away the gains anywhere else in the state. Sure, they had more room for improvement – but that’s because the RSD schools were abject disasters before their current management; as in, they were disasters when old-fashioned school boards populated by the Rae Trahans, Seth Blooms and Tarvald Smiths were running them.

The non-New Orleans RSD schools, by the way, had a district performance score of 43.8 in 2010. That was their first year. Two years later in 2012, that score was 58.9. Which is still pathetic, mind you, but it’s a 34 percent improvement in two years. That’s not nothing.

Let’s remember that the RSD schools are the ones taken away from school districts like Orleans, East Baton Rouge and Lafayette for being failures – so when those schools come out of those districts, the districts’ scores improve. That’s to some degree why Orleans is an A (there are 68 RSD schools in Orleans Parish) and East Baton Rouge is a C (there are eight RSD schools in East Baton Rouge). Without the RSD taking the real problem children out of the mix those district scores would really stink.

In other words, it’s pretty obvious that the entry-level political hacks on these school boards aren’t contributing to sound policy or educational excellence. What they’re doing is proving something that Governing Magazine brought up back in May

Advocates contend that the school board structure gives communities a direct voice in governance and that members are held accountable through the election process. But there’s an increasing sense among others that it may be time to eliminate school boards altogether. The idea has crossed party lines. The Center for American Progress is a generally liberal institution, but Chester Finn, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former assistant education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, has issued similar decrees. “School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an education sinkhole,” he said in 2006. “Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.”

It’s worth thinking about. The Governing piece brought up an idea which is even better…

The rise of charter schools has provided another new frontier. The entire concept of charter schools is that they’re publicly funded but independently controlled — outside the purview of a school board. Nearly every state now authorizes charters in one form or another, and the number of students enrolled in them more than quadrupled in the past decade.

“I could imagine a future where every school is a charter school,” Petrilli says, “so you no longer have a school board that’s overseeing an entire city.”

Some states and localities have experimented with recovery school districts, jurisdictions not bound by geography but instead built around having one body oversee failing schools. New Orleans pioneered the model in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but it’s also gained support in Michigan and Tennessee. Some education experts have suggested taking things further and handing complete control back to the states, which would serve as the higher authority for individual schools, cutting out the school board.

Don’t expect a national move to disband school boards. Any changes will likely happen on a crisis-by-crisis basis. The Columbus, Ohio, City Schools, for example, have been thrown into chaos recently by a data-scamming scandal that touches the top levels of the district’s administration. Some have suggested that Mayor Michael Coleman take a more active role as public outcry mounts.

“Because of our fragmented system, this stuff is going to be piecemeal. Some of these ideas are going to spread faster than others,” Petrilli says. “I think they’re going to spread the fastest in places where people see the biggest problems.”

Quite so.

Having independent schools, with a “district” mostly consisting of a voluntary alliance of those schools for things like IT support or pooled purchasing power, and having those independent schools competing with each other for students and the education dollar which is tied to them, is an infinitely smarter, more flexible and ultimately more cost-efficient way to do things in the 21st century.

But the best part about a model like that is that it will do away with petty tyrants and mindless boobs like Rae Trahan and Seth Bloom, who are on school boards because they haven’t the ability to get elected to a city council or the Legislature. After all, would you trust your kid’s education to somebody the voters wouldn’t trust on a police jury?

You do now. Can’t we do better than this?

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