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School board meeting turns heated after community members object to superintendent candidates

Community member Armtrice Cowart speaks at a meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board on March 24, 2022.
Aubri Juhasz
Armtrice Cowart, with the Erase the Board Coalition, speaks at an Orleans Parish School Board meeting on March 24, 2022.

A school board meeting turned heated Thursday night after community members demanded to speak regarding the district’s superintendent search process and hurled insults at its current leader Henderson Lewis Jr.

The meeting was meant to celebrate Lewis’ tenure as the district’s longest-serving Black superintendent, and state and local officials were in attendance.

But the public’s comments, some of which were shouted out of turn, overshadowed discussion of his accomplishments.

“You’re going to congratulate this man for ruining our schools?” one woman yelled from the back of the room as Lewis received one of the night's many awards.

Public commenters expressed dissatisfaction with the city’s charter schools, blaming them for violent crime involving youth, and attacked the superintendent’s integrity.

“You’ve failed all of the children,” said Yvette Thierry, whose 21-year-old granddaughter died in a triple shooting last week. “My grandbaby was supposed to bury me. I’m not supposed to be burying my baby.”

Ashana Bigard, with Erase the Board Coalition, argued Thursday that the transition to an all-charter system after Katrina allows schools to operate without accountability. The district is responsible for ensuring schools fulfill their operating agreements, but their power over day-to-day operations is limited.

Erase the Board Coalition, which advocates for an end to the city's all-charter system, posted multiple calls to action on its Instagram account, asking the public to attend Thursday's board meeting to rally against the district.

Bigard added that the lack of mental health resources and a “no excuses” discipline approach in some charter schools after Katrina was partially to blame for the violence the city is seeing today.

“We’re surprised when we see horrific crimes when we didn’t give our children mercy, care or just the proper things that you’re supposed to do for children with early brain development,” she said.

Lewis, who is leaving willfully when his contract expires at the end of June, has largely escaped controversy during his 7-year tenure.

His accomplishments include: unifying the city’s charter schools in 2018, advancing equity by differentiating funding and guiding the district through the pandemic, including returning students to in-person learning safely.

Thursday’s agenda did not have a relevant action item that would have allowed the public to speak, so the board voted to add one to the end of the meeting.

“We recognize the passion that you have for children, and we are making space for this discussion,” board president Olin Parker said.

Long-time board member Nolan Marshall acknowledged the community's pain, but said it shouldn’t be directed at Lewis.

“This is not an Orleans Parish public schools problem. This problem is shared by public education across this country, poverty, crime and housing,” he said. “He does not deserve some of the remarks and things that people have given him this evening. He does deserve all of the accolades.”

The search to find Lewis’ replacement is expected to wrap up this week, and the remaining three candidates — Marshall Tuck, Avis Williams and André Wright — are all from out-of-state.

“I know for a fact that most of the people were saying they wanted someone local. They wanted rootedness and accountability,” Bigard said.

New Orleans Public Radio attended multiple public feedback sessions and a student discussion conducted by the district’s search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates.

While many people said they would prefer a candidate who had attended or worked in the city’s public schools, others said a willingness to learn about the city’s history and culture would also be acceptable.

Board member Carlos Zervigon was the lone vote against the proposed list of finalists Tuesday and cited the lack of representation from the Crescent City.

“We do have qualified educators in our community who could serve as superintendent, and it makes me uncomfortable that we don’t have anyone on this finalists list,” he said.

Bigard and others support New Orleans native and educator Ashonta Wyatt for superintendent. Wyatt reportedly applied for the position, but was not included on the district’s initial list of 15 candidates.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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