by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
Fear is something Leslie Jacobs knows about.
As a native of New Orleans, she has been one of the many who have helped the city rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and her rebuilding efforts included the city’s school system. This is why she appeared before Jacksonville’s Charter Revision Commission at its regular weekly meeting Thursday at City Hall. She has served as an elected member of the Orleans Parish School District, was appointed by two governors to serve on the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and is founder of “Educate Now,” a nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding and reforming New Orleans’ public schools after Hurricane Katrina.
Commission member Jim Catlett asked Jacobs about her opinion on elected versus appointed school board.
“If there is a need for hard decisions, elected officials don’t like to lead,” said Jacobs. “If there is a need for hard decisions to improve what is going on in Jacksonville’s schools; do you need to close schools, do you need to really negotiate the work rules of the collective bargaining agreement, do you need to bring in some higher quality school leaders and teachers in a way that some people might be upset; it is very hard for an elected board to have that kind of backbone. That’s not just in Jacksonville, that’s everywhere. That’s because elected officials hate to have enemies.”
Jacobs described how an appointed board might be able to function more efficiently under mayoral control.
“Mayoral appointed boards tend to have more staying power,” said Jacobs. “The reason to go for an appointed board is the mayor then takes the arrows. The mayor is then able to withstand them better because it is an issue, not the issue.”
Jacobs was not relying on the latest data she had collected or the latest polls or educational studies in making the statements Thursday. She was speaking as a former school board member.
“It was the most frustrating job I’ve ever had,” said Jacobs, responding to former Mayor Ed Austin’s question on whether or not an unsalaried board position decreases the quality of people running for school board seats. “The reason people don’t run to be on the school board is because it is a yucky job. Your job is to hire and fire the superintendent and keep an eye on finances. We would get calls from parents all the time with these stories about how the schools were being run and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
This information was received by members of the Charter Revision Commission as it awaited a response from the City’s Office of General Counsel to the Commission’s question of whether or not the City had the legal standing to change the School Board from a board elected by the people to one appointed by the mayor. The Commission received a letter from former City General Counsel Jim Rinaman that stated they did have the standing and a letter from School Board member and attorney W.C. Gentry that stated they didn’t have the standing.
The Office of General Counsel didn’t issue an opinion on the matter, but did submit advice to the Commission stating, “given the strong likelihood of a legal challenge to such a Charter Amendment, and the uncertainty of its outcome, as explained herein, if the Commission, as a policy matter, recommends to the City Council that School Board members be appointed, the most appropriate method would be by constitutional amendment applied statewide, and providing for a local option by referendum of the people.”