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Outgoing OPSB president makes national news

2nd January 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Some dubbed them the ‘four amigos.’

Thomas Robichaux, Woody Koppel, Brett Bonin, and Seth Bloom all were elected to the Orleans Parish School Board four years ago filled with reformist fire.

The newcomers came to a school board that ultimately oversaw only six schools. By the commencement of their term of office, the remaining ones under the OPSB’s purview — those which escaped the flooding of Hurricane Katrina and were already academically successful — had transformed into Charters, or were on the verge of earning that status. The rest had reformed under the State’s Recovery School District.

Critics joked that the four amigos governed a school system with no schools, yet the real work of the OPSB, often forgotten in loud fights over school conditions, has always been financial — and the four would make their mark in reforming how the System paid its bills.

The Board members were res­ponsible ultimately for the School District’s Bond rating and interest payments and for the management of the systems huge teacher and staff retirement liabilities, and both were in a terrible financial state, something true long before the storm. Four years later, with Wall Street refinancing at more favorable rates, and retirement agreements signed, the Orleans School System is in a far better financial condition than in decades. Joined by the usually sympathetic Lour­des Moran, a long-time incumbent, the five managed to construct majorities on the school board for changes that appeared politically impossible just four years before.

Next year, though, only Woody Koppel and Seth Bloom will return to the OPSB. The voters ousted all of the others, with only Koppel earning re-election. Bloom had the virtue of running opposed. The remainder were victims of a surging African-American vote on November 6, 2012, carried on the coattails of Barack Obama.

Lourdes Moran lost 48%-52% or by nearly 800 votes to educational consultant Leslie Ellison, thanks to larger Black turnout in the challenger’s African-American home precincts in Algiers. Thomas Robi­chaux, the first openly gay member of the Orleans School Board and its President, went down to defeat as the Ninth Ward-centered Seventh Distr­ict reasserted its African-American majority, electing Nolan Marshall. The sole Republi­can incumbent on the Board, Brett Bonin, went down to defeat in the latter with only 33 percent of the vote, losing to white Democrat Sarah Newell Usdin in the primary. This despite the fact that Karran Harper Royal also earned 10 percent of the vote in this Caucasian majority district, showing that the Obama Coattails helped direct two-thirds of the vote to Democrats in this GOP-leaning seat.

Curiously, Usdin and Ellison both spoke positively of the complete charterization of the School District, something generally unpopular in the politically vocal African-Ameri­can community. That did not stop the Black vote from coalescing behind African-American candidates, though, even if the incumbents were active supporters of returning local control to the OPSB from the RSD, and both played a vocal role in the fight to keep SUNO from merging with UNO.

As Robichaux explained to The Louisiana Weekly, the central theme of the four’s work was to prove that the Orleans School District stood financially and administratively capable of returning the school to local Board control. His loss, and those of the others, will bring forth a slightly different focus on reform. The tone of the campaign messages of both Ellison and Usdin prefer an em­phasis on school independence regardless of whether the OPSB or the State Superintendent of Educa­tion had final responsibility for Orleans Schools.

The fact that the four amigos lost did not mean, however, they planned to go quietly. In fact, Robichaux made national news.

The outgoing Orleans Parish School Board President launched a campaign to bar teaching anything to do with creationism or the idea of “intelligent design” in evolution for the six schools that the OPSB oversaw.

At Robichaux’s behest, the board moved to bar district educators from injecting “any aspect of religious faith” into science courses. Particu­larly targeted were the textbooks rewritten “in accordance with the state of Texas revisionist guidelines,” changes that emphasize the role of Christianity in the country’s history.

The irony is that the changes will not actually impact the curriculum at all. State law seemingly already prohibits such teaching. The Louisiana Science Education Act states that in science curricula the law “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.”

So why would Robichaux launch such a policy change at the OPSB if state law already mandates it. Primarily, as a constitutional law­yer, the Board President worried that the law was “misnamed” and may actually do the opposite of what its text indicates. As a liberal Democrat and the board’s first openly gay president, such a secular position might be a means to leave his mark. At the Nov. 15 committee meeting, he declared, “We are on the right side of history and the right side of the kids.”

But, there was a subtler issue involved that touches upon the kind of policies pursued by the four amigos and the French Quarter-based Lourdes Moran — policies that those newly elected to the board might not embrace. Some argue that the move was a pre-emptive strike against Leslie Ellison, even though Robichaux made no such statement.

Ellison courted social conservatives in the African-American community last spring, testifying before the Legislature in support of a bill to prohibit agencies from including sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies. That led the pro-Gay Rights Forum for Equality, on whose board Robichaux sits as a member, to call her a “bigot.” The group ultimately endorsed Moran.

Not one OPSB member dissented at the first reading of the secular policy change. Currently, it is up for public comment. In the end, the four amigos stood together.

Interestingly, the anti-creationist stance has earned Robichaux more praise in the last month than he received for all of his financial reforms put together. At a Mid-City Bar recently, the patrons would not let the School Board member pay for a drink all night.

National attention has come from the Huffington Post and other Liberal websites, and the emails of praise were so effusive that the School Board President asked the American Secular Humanist Soc­iety to put out an email asking its supporters to stop sending letters of praise.

Robichaux’s stand, agree with it or not, will likely do more to cement the legacy of the four amigo reformers than any of the actual reforms they achieved.

This article was originally published in the December 31, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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