NEW ORLEANS — A New Orleans school board member withdrew from consideration for the board presidency Thursday night amid a flurry of criticism over her record of resistance to protections for LGBT students, but that didn't stop a torrent of vehement criticism that nearly led to her losing her current post as the board's vice president.
When the debate was over, Leslie Ellison remained the board's vice president — elected in an unexpectedly narrow 4-3 vote after close to two dozen speakers, including gay and transgender students and adults, voiced their displeasure.
Immediately prior to the debate, the seven-member board made an apparent attempt to defuse the expected rancor by unanimously voting to suspend its rules and allow the current president, John Brown, and vice president, Ellison, to remain in their current posts for another year.
But Ellison's critics didn't relent, saying she should be ousted as vice-president as well.
"There are countless numbers of LGBTQ students who yearn for the day that will allow them to walk fearlessly into their truth and be their best selves," said Gary Briggs, a former teacher and a gay man. "Because how can we expect our students to perform at their highest levels when they cannot live authentically?"
A handful of speakers supported Ellison, none mentioning gay or sexual identity issues as they praised her dedication and competence.
After sometimes blistering criticism from a majority of speakers, the board stuck with its decision to keep Brown as president for another year with a unanimous vote. But members re-opened nominations for vice president. Member Sarah Usdin nominated colleague Nolan Marshal Jr. to replace Ellison. But Ellison won another year as vice president by a 4-3 vote. She did not immediately address the criticism before the board moved on to other issues.
Ellison's record on LGBT issues goes back several years but only recently had been drawing greater scrutiny.
Opponents cite a 2012 legislative committee hearing in which she opposed language in state charter school contracts explicitly forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation. News reports from 2013 indicate she also opposed language including protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity in a board anti-bullying policy that year.
Ellison didn't respond to an emailed request for comment.
The 2012 bill, which did not become law, said the non-discrimination language in state contracts must include non-discrimination language protecting people on the bases of race, religion, national ancestry, age, sex or disability, but prohibited any other factor — thereby excluding protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
At the time, according to news accounts and an archived video of the committee hearing, Ellison said she could not sign a renewal application for a state-chartered public school she was leading because it contained "sexual orientation" protections. Ellison, an administrator at Gideon Christian Fellowship International in New Orleans, said at the time that she is "strongly opposed to discrimination at every level." But, she said, the state Department of Education's insistence on sexual orientation language constituted "unjust demands on individuals and education leaders who for religious purposes and religious freedom will not sign off on such a policy."
LGBT rights groups said in statements this week that Ellison has not backed away from her earlier position.
"Just this week, after the Forum and many other leaders from our community engaged with Ms. Ellison, she pointedly declined to retract or even reflect upon here past statements," the New Orleans-based Forum for Equality said on its website.