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Louisiana's largest school system rethinking past

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GRETNA, La. (AP) — In the four months since a union-backed majority took over governance of Louisiana's largest public school system, the Jefferson Parish School Board has embarked on a clear mission to rethink or undo many of the old guard's initiatives. Board President Cedric Floyd is leading the drive, with a take-charge attitude that has ruffled feathers among some colleagues and school system employees.

They say he's out to run a one-man show. He disputes the contention.

Either way, the changes since Jan. 1 offer a lesson on the power of elected school boards over elementary and secondary education. Though superintendents are the chief executives and often are credited for sea changes, it is the board that puts these leaders in place and either supports or hinders them. The Jefferson board hired a new superintendent, Isaac Joseph to start work May 1, so it remains to be seen whether he can sustain student achievement, heal employee unrest and help Jefferson excel.

Some say the 2015 board is on the right track. "I see a new perspective. I see new attitudes. I see people who are more open-minded," said Alexander Butts, parent of a student at Woodland West Elementary School in Harvey.

Others are less impressed. Jamulla Smith-Moses, a parent at Livaudais Middle School in Terrytown, said she's heard Floyd and other board members talk a lot about contracts, but not enough about education: "I'm like, how long are we going to go on about the money?"

The School Board majority, bankrolled in the 2014 elections by the American Federation of Teachers and its local affiliate, is comprised of Floyd, Marion Bonura, Melinda Doucet, Ricky Johnson and Ray St. Pierre. The business-backed faction, which until January controlled the board, counts Melinda Bourgeois, Larry Dale and Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge. Mark Morgan was union-endorsed but has emerged as a swing vote.

In the first four months of the year, the new board has overturned much of what its predecessor put in place. Among major changes:

- Agreeing to build an arts wing for Lincoln Elementary School for the Arts in Marrero, a move that the old board proposed, then abandoned three times.

- Lifting limits on board members' out-of-state travel

- Scrutinizing Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy's charter, even though the old board approved it last year.

- Nixing a requirement that teachers annually elect to take union dues from their pay.

- Reopening St. Ville Academy in Harvey, one of seven schools that its predecessor voted to close in 2012

- Rejoining the Louisiana School Boards Association and its national affiliate.

Further, board members revamped the superintendent selection process. Majority members of the old board quietly recruited an outside reformer in James Meza, Jr., then nixed a national search to give him the permanent job. The new board picked a long-timer from within, after a show of transparency in the search process.

These moves, Floyd said, are proof that the board is on the right track. The early going has been "1,000 times better than the first two or three months of 2011," he said, referring to the initial period of the former School Board.

Francienne Simmons of Harvey, a teacher who has supported Floyd in past elections, had a similar view of the old board. "I think they did not really listen to the pulse of the community," she said.

That pulse, in the view of many long-time teachers, is one that supports collective bargaining for employees, ?favors conventional public schools over charters and generally eschews controversial cost-cutting measures such as school closures and layoffs. ?

While the new board is making friends among veteran teachers, members at times have trouble making nice with each other - just as did the 2011-14 board with a business-backed majority. Some members of the new union-backed majority, nursing old wounds, have made decisions without consulting their colleagues. That's recently been made evident in discussions about the superintendent search, a process that some minority members say took place without their input.

Majority members have repeatedly held that in the past, the "business five" acted the same way, without regard to their colleagues.

Internal power struggles aside, Floyd, as the board's president has taken it a step further. Some of his colleagues say he arbitrarily makes decisions alone.

In January, he proposed that the board approve separation payments to Meza, but then he withdrew his proposal and began to manage the payout himself, leading to objections from Meza's attorney. For months, the board did not enter executive session to discuss the ramifications of Floyd's actions, because Floyd had not put the issue on the board's agenda.

His agenda-setting also drew criticism in April, when Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy's new pre-kindergarten class was not brought up for discussion.

Board member Mark Morgan responded by proposing a limit to Floyd's agenda-setting authority. He said Floyd is more authoritative than he and other past presidents.

"I view the president as the spokesperson for the board, and the person who chairs the meetings," he said. "And I think that Cedric is the total opposite of that. He believes that the board president has more power than any other board member, and he hasn't been afraid to exercise the limits of that."

Further, Floyd is seen as combative. Since taking the presidency in January, he has loudly argued with Dale at a public meeting and even accused his union-backed allies of acting like their predecessors when they refused to back him on a wireless communications upgrade. He similarly clashed before this year with former board member Michael Delesdernier, Meza and other employees.

Floyd counters that "every other board member" knows of his decisions, an assertion denied by Morgan, Bourgeois and Dale. As for keeping matters off the board's agenda, "If I don't think enough information is there, then I won't put it on," he said.

He said anyone who finds him hard to get along with should remember: "It takes two to tango."

Floyd sees the board president as above the superintendent. He said any agenda suggestions he receives are preliminary until he decides whether to include them. When a reporter pointed to the board's policy that lets superintendent act as board secretary and treasurer and prepare the agenda, he pointed to his own role as director to the superintendent. "A secretary is, you do what you're told."

In past years, Meza acted as more of a chief executive officer who made recommendations to the board. Members largely "let him be the education expert," past president Michael Delesdernier said. The board president, nearly always from the business-backed majority, and superintendent typically worked together to set agendas, other members said. It's not clear what Floyd's take on the presidency will mean for Joseph, the new superintendent.

Terry Verigan, a former School Board member and teacher, sympathized with Floyd but disagreed with his style. "This is a gentleman who has been through eight years of hell. His frustration is understandable," he said. Still, as president, he shouldn't step on his colleagues' toes in spite. "It's not his prerogative to make calls like that," he said of Floyd's move on Meza's payout. ?

Generally, Verigan said he is pleased with the board's direction. Smith-Moses, the Livaudais parent, said more work should still be done around student discipline, class sizes and the national Common Core academic standards.

As Butts, the Woodland West parent, sees it, board members have good intentions. But some just need to get out of their own way. "Everybody should be able to work together, because the bottom line is it's all about the kids," he said. ?

"You've got to get over who's doing what. Let's forget about all the other crap. Let's do the best we can for Jefferson Parish. That's the only way."


Information from: The Times-Picayune,

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