But Does it Really Matter?

By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune

The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) voted today (March 30) to select Dr. Avis Williams as the next superintendent of public education, making her the first woman chosen to serve as the permanent superintendent for the District.

Williams and OPSB are now expected to work our the terms of a contract before her formal appointment.

The Board wasted little time to making its decision after having only announced finalists for the post last week.

“(Dr. Williams) has a good background, but that’s not the issue. Until we deal with the elephant in the room, it doesn’t matter who the superintendent is. Act 91 is the elephant in the room. The superintendent could be great, but even she can’t interfere with local school business because of Act 91.”

Author, veteran educator and public Education Advocate, Dr. Raynard Sander

In the weeks leading up to the naming of finalists, several local education advocates expressed concern about search results and began a petition urging the Board to start from scratch and to include more direct input from the public. Specifically, critics of the search and its results took issue with the fact that not one of the top three finalists were from New Orleans.

Concerned residents also wanted more assurances that the final candidates’ educational philosophies and plans were aligned with a return to neighborhood schools and with ending the all-charter school system that has emerged from the state’s post-Katrina takeover of public education in New Orleans.

Dr. Raynard Sanders, a veteran educator, administrator, author and public education advocate who has been a vocal critic of the direction public education has taken since Hurricane Katrina, says that those issues were indeed among reasons he signed the petition.

“I want to know why we are always looking for somebody from the outside. Is it that we don’t want anyone who knows the history or we don’t want someone who’s going to be sensitive to the needs and the wishes of our community,” Sanders says.

Williams, who currently serves as superintendent of Selma City Schools in Selma, Ala., appears well-qualified. She has served in leadership positions in the US Army, as an entrepreneur and as an education administrator, serving as an elementary, middle, and high school principal. She is certified to teach English, Physical Education and as a P-12 Principal and Superintendent. She earned her doctorate from the University of Alabama and is a graduate of the University of Alabama’s Superintendents Academy. She earned a doctorate in Administration & Instructional Leadership from the  University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, administrative certification from Jacksonville State University, in Alabama, and her bachelor’s in education and her teaching certificate from Athens State College in Alabama. Williams not only impressed the local school board, but earlier in March, she emerged as one of five finalists in the search for a new superintendent of schools in Montgomery, Ala.

Sanders agrees that Williams has the right credentials and background, but says superintendent is the least of the issues facing public education in New Orleans.

“We have a Board that’s neutered and schools that are run by charter organizations,” he says. ”Meanwhile we have a charter system that has created more failing schools than any system in the state. This Board continues down a path of academic failure and unaccountabilty. Despite the narrative of success pushed by those in favor of the charter school movement, the fact is that many of these schools are failing — D and F schools. We have a segregated school system, where most of the White students attend the eight or 10 schools that are top performers.”

Sanders continues, ”(Dr. Williams) has a good background, but that’s not the issue. Until we deal with the elephant in the room, it doesn’t matter who the superintendent is. Act 91 is the elephant in the room. The Board and the Superintendent don’t have a say about schools in New Orleans until its time to renew a charter or give a new one. The superintendent could be great, but even she can’t interfere with local school business because of Act 91.”

Act 91 refers to the so-called school unification legislation that allows individual charter management operators to act as their own local education agencies while providing very little oversight and control by the elected Board or its appointed superintendent. The original bill that is now Act 91 was authored by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson. And though characterized as school unification bill that returned public education in New Orleans to local control, in reality, it does a little more then put independent charter operations under the umbrella of an elected board that possessess little real authority when it comes to governance. Charter schools have their own unelected boards, making final decisions on budgets, curriculum and operations at their respective school sites.

Despite community concerns, the School moved forward with the selection process, announcing its final three candidates on March 23 and promising to name a new superintendent a March 30 meeting.

And the Board seems satisified with the selection of Williams, with Board president Olin Parker citing its historic nature.

“As the first African American woman appointed to lead our District in its more than 180 year history, her breadth of experience as a sergeant in U.S. Army, a teacher, principal, assistant principal, principal, and superintendent will help take our students’ education to the next level,” Parker says in a press release announcing Williams’ selection.

For her part, Williams seems ready to get to work.

In the press release, she says, “I am honored, humbled, and thrilled by this new opportunity with OPSB. I look forward to working with the community to do important work for Every Child at Every School, Every Day. I can’t wait to get started. My thanks to the OPSB for their trust & confidence. I’m excited to listen — to teachers, students, families, and the NOLA community — and translate what I learn into meaningful actions that I hope will touch lives and open doors for all of our scholars in the future.”

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