The Story of Doris Voitier (as told by John H. Richardson in Esquire)

As you approach New Orleans from the north, passing the airport and the middle suburbs, all the stores and buildings and streetlights and houses look just fine. It even looks good as you cross the bridge into the downtown area—a boarded-up window here and there, that’s all. And when you pull up to the Sheraton and hand your keys to the valet and walk out into the French Quarter, you can still walk down Bourbon Street with a drink in your hand and listen to a dozen bands and retire to Antoine’s for the trout Pontchartrain. Les bons temps still rouler.

Then I’m in my hotel room listening to some guy on Fox News talk about how New Orleans needs charter schools when he says the name of the woman I have come to meet: Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish public-school system.

I walk over and look at the TV. She’s a round woman in a lime-colored suit. “You must be confusing us with New Orleans Parish,” she says. “I’m from St. Bernard Parish. We had excellent schools.”

The Fox guy stumbles and says, Well, in general, speaking as an educator, isn’t it time for the New Orleans Parish to accept charter schools?

Polite but clearly annoyed, Voitier tells him again that she is from St. Bernard Parish, where the problem isn’t bad schools but the stinginess and incompetence of the federal government.

Ten minutes later, I see her in the hotel lobby. “I am so livid right now,” she says. “Our kids were at or above state averages on nationalized testing. We’re fiscally sound, we’re managed well, we’re very proud of our schools.”

Voitier grew up on a street corner made famous by a jazz song. Her father was a bodyguard for Huey Long. She started teaching math in St. Bernard Parish in 1971, figuring she’d put in a couple of years and then do something more ambitious—in the excitement of those early feminist years, becoming a teacher seemed almost lame. But she found out she loved to teach, and since she never married or had children, that definitely made it more a vocation than a job, to make a difference in the life of a child, corny as that sounds. She rose slowly through the system and by the time of Katrina, she ran fifteen schools that served eighty-eight hundred kids.

Voitier rode out the storm at Chalmette High School along with twelve hundred other people, sending boats out to scavenge for food and water. Four days passed before they got the first outside help, a little Canadian search-and-rescue unit that showed up out of nowhere. But Voitier still believed in her government, and when FEMA told her it could throw up a temporary modular school in ninety days, she made a pledge: When the first child came back to St. Bernard Parish, she would have a school ready to educate him.

But FEMA did nothing. Three weeks later, when it said the temporary schools would actually take six months or longer, Voitier had her breakthrough. Nobody could come back to a community without schools. If too much time went by, people would get settled in new communities. St. Bernard Parish would die. “To heck with y’all,” she said. “We’ll do it ourselves and send you the bill.”

Working with her own administrative team along with the local sheriff and firemen and congressmen—some of whom she had taught math—Voitier located some portable classroom buildings in Georgia and Carolina and found a local contractor to set them up and tracked down her wandering teaching staff and found trailers for the teachers to live in and took out a Community Disaster Loan to help pay for it, plunging her district from solvency into a debt of $17.8 million overnight. She did all this without phones, without the Internet or grocery stores or Laundromats or even a place to get a sandwich or a bottle of clean water, making handshake deals in parking lots—but she opened the first school on November 14, 2005, with 334 students. A month later, she had 640. A month after that 1,500.

The first day, she saw one little boy grab another and say, “Jeff, I thought you were dead!”

Lunch was another battle. She couldn’t get the gas hooked up till after Thanksgiving, so she called FEMA administrators and asked them to please help feed the kids for a week. “Can’t you give ’em sandwiches or an MRE?” they said. So she found another guy she taught in high school to cook five hundred lunches a day on a barge in the river, and even then FEMA wouldn’t pay for the food, saying it was an operational cost and not an emergency cost.

Then FEMA finally gave her a couple of trailers for classrooms, but the fire marshal said they violated the state fire code, so she put washers and dryers in one of them, because people were driving thirty miles to do their laundry—and the FEMA guy put her under investigation for misappropriation of federal property.

“You just had to live through this to understand,” she says.

Voitier has seen the best of people and the worst of people, has seen some tough it out and others fall by the wayside, and knows what really matters—her students, her community, and the core group of people who stood by her through the worst of it, people like Wayne Warner and Carole Mundt, and don’t forget to mention Bev Lawrason. It’s the unexpected gift from the hurricane that took everything else away. “To be honest, it’s almost like a rush,” she says. “It’s a new purpose. It’s something that is probably the most meaningful thing I’ve done.”

from a longer story here.