After a high-intensity week of more than a dozen interviews and lengthy deliberations Thursday night, a group of volunteers settled on six people — three attorneys and three people involved in education — to recommend as the new governing board of Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans.
The six chosen — attorneys Ben Castoriano, Tim Gray and Alysson Mills, and Erin Greenwald of the Historic New Orleans Collection, Mary Jacob Jones of The New Teacher Project, and Southeastern Louisiana University education-technology professor Elizabeth Rhodes — will be presented as one slate for approval by an up-or-down vote of the current board next week. All six could be added immediately, bringing the current board to 11 people as they seek out a new CEO for the school.
State charter-school regulations, however, require a minimum of seven board members, and the committee’s goal was to replace all the current board members by July 1. Thus, the committee decided to resume its search immediately, focusing in its second round on seeking members with specific skills — such as an accountant — not currently represented among the initial six chosen.
The committee interviewed a total of 13 people over three nights this week before beginning its deliberations Thursday. Committee members then each listed all the candidates they thought were best qualified on a classroom chalkboard, and immediately four people — Gray, Greenwald, Jones and Mills — were chosen by all five committee members.
“These four people, I think, are awesome,” said committee member Robert Bell as they were voted to be added to the initial slate.
Rhodes was the first to be discussed individually. A former public-school teacher and current professor, Rhodes also served on the board of Sojourner Truth Academy, which surrendered its charter last year after failing to raise perpetually struggling test scores. After a brief discussion — with strong comments in her support from the dozen or so parents in the audience — committee members decided the difficulty of the Sojourner Truth experience gave Rhodes a renewed zeal to succeed and voted for her unanimously.
“She’s been through some really amazing experiences, even some she didn’t care for,” said Lycee PTO president Mary Dwyer. “She’d be an asset.”
Discussion then turned to Castoriano, and several people in the audience were concerned by his relative inexperience at board governance as well as his stint as a contestant in Season 7 of the reality TV show “The Bachelorette.” While they agreed he was charming, they said Lycee is in too precarious a position to take a risk on someone so young.
“Quality over quantity,” current board member Paige Saleun urged from the audience, suggesting the committee slow the number of nominees it was accepting.
Others, however, said his TV gig was a quirky lark that shouldn’t be held against him, and that his intelligence and clear grasp of governance showed he could quickly overcome his lack of experience. They also cited his experience in labor law, his energy, his French-speaking background and what seemed like a peacemaker’s temperament that could help reunite a fractured parent base.
“It seems like he knows as much as people I’ve seen who’ve served on boards,” Bell said.
Following that discussion, Castoriano was also approved unanimously, bringing the total slate to six nominees.
The only criteria that seemed to automatically disqualify candidates for the committee was any personal connection to the school. Bell’s list included two current Lycee grandparents, and the other nominees acknowledged their skills but were uninterested in pursuing them. Committee chair Jeff Teague said the school community is looking for a “fresh start.”
With at least one more board member needed, attorney Lee Reid suggested that lawyers and education professionals were well represented on the slate, a strong board needed finance professionals to watch the budget. For the next round, he said, the nominating committee should specifically solicit people with accounting backgrounds, as well as some experience in real estate, because the school is projected to outgrow its current facility in several years. Parents in the audience asked that someone with fundraising experience and a French baccalaureate holder also be sought.
Several parents asked for more racial diversity among the nominees as well. A relatively low proportion of minority students among New Orleans schools has been a persistent theme among Lycee’s critics in its first two years, and parent Robert Rachal noted that the nominating committee is all white, as are all but one of their nominees. Another parent said that even within the French-speaking population of New Orleans, more racial diversity can be found among Haitian and even Vietnamese families, and the committee agreed to make that more of a priority in their second round as well.
To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.