- Associated Press - Sunday, May 15, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - For folks in New Orleans who want a stronger voice in the governance of local schools, democracy is making a comeback.

But, for the local sheriff, an anti-democratic “coup” is afoot - at least according to his lawyers.

In each case, the issue is whether locally run institutions, foundering in the eyes of some, should be taken over by other entities with less direct accountability to local voters.

Louisiana lawmakers answered “yes” in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina and the accompanying levee failures left most of the city in ruins.

Legislators voted to allow a near complete takeover of New Orleans public schools by the Louisiana Recovery School District. Katrina was the catalyst but the reason was years of poor performance, inefficiency, contentiousness and even corruption in the Orleans Parish Schools system.

There had been optimistic talk that schools would be put right and returned apace to local control, some in as few as five years. It didn’t turn out that way. And substantial numbers of voters appeared to be in no big hurry to go back to the bad old days, based on annual polls by a Tulane University education think tank.

Still, there was a clamor among many to put local officials, elected by local taxpayers, back in charge. Legislators have answered the call with a bill returning local control as early as 2018.

The bill signed Thursday by Gov. John Bel Edwards goes too far for those who still don’t trust the local board. It doesn’t go far enough for others who say the bill effectively cements in place a system of charter schools that they argue have too much autonomy.

But at least the bill puts the power to renew or revoke charters in the hands of a local board, accountable to local voters.

“At some point, whether we like it or not, the schools need to be returned to local authority,” state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, told the House Education Committee during a recent debate on the measure.

Local authority also is on the mind of Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who stands to lose some. The U.S. Justice Department and inmate advocates have asked a federal judge to appoint a third-party “receiver” to be placed in charge of operating the New Orleans jail.

A new jail opened amid much fanfare in September but, according to a court-appointed monitor, inmates and jail staffers remain in danger because the sparkling new jail is home to the same problems of violence that plagued the dilapidated old jail.

Gusman responds that he’s had too little time to meet all of the reform requirements outlined in a lawsuit settlement agreement he signed in late 2012.

A lack of time might seem a hollow argument considering that he’s been in office since 2004. Still, he makes a case that a year after he took office, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the already aging jail complex hampered his own reform efforts. He also argues that adapting staff to a new jail takes time and that the city has long provided too little money to hire and train staff.

Stripping him of his chief responsibility is not the answer, his lawyers argue in a court filing last week.

“This dispute is motivated by a desire to usurp the will of the Orleans Parish voters,’” the document says, later adding: “Thankfully, the law provides careful safeguards against such coups.”

If it’s a coup, it’s been a while unfolding. The administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu - elected by the same voters who put Gusman in office - argued for receivership years ago. U.S. District Judge Lance Africk turned back the attempt in 2013 but didn’t shut the door.

Now, he has to decide whether Gusman’s opponents are attempting a coup or advocating a needed, if drastic, remedy.

___

EDITORS NOTE: Kevin Mcgill is and Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.


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