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Ira, Stan & Much Ado About DBEs

On my honor, I swear to make a mockery of the Orleans Parish School Board
On my honor, I swear to make a mockery of the Orleans Parish School Board…

Orleans Parish School Board President Ira Thomas is playing racially-charged, self-serving political games on the school board and the target of his machinations is once again OPSB Superintendent Stan Smith.

On Thursday, the Times-Picayune reported that Thomas was trying to schedule an emergency meeting aimed at demoting Smith and possibly installing Armand Devezin as superintendent. However, Thomas was unable to secure the quorum needed to hold the meeting because, as board member Sarah Usdin bluntly put it, “There’s not an emergency.”

Unfortunately for Stan Smith (and those of us who subscribe to the crazy idea that elected officials actually serve the public interest) it’s unlikely that this setback will deter Thomas’ effort to replace him [In fact, Thomas announced this morning (6/25/13) that he plans to address the superintendency issue in the next two days]. It all started at OPSB’s first full post-election meeting in February, when Thomas filed a last-minute item to the agenda seeking to nullify Smith’s superintendent contract. Thomas’ attempted coup de main almost immediately fell apart, however, when board members balked at his suggestion that Smith’s contract was never actually approved by the board. Instead, they passed a substitute motion put forward by Seth Bloom asking Thomas and Vice-President Leslie Ellison to revise the contract and bring it back for ratification at a later date [As of 6/25/13, the board has yet to receive a revised contract from Thomas and Ellison].

While one would expect that Thomas would give up this crusade after its spectacular failure in February, his behind-the-scenes maneuvers over the past week indicate otherwise. So why is Ira Thomas so hellbent on replacing Stan Smith? Have schools fallen into disrepair? Are the district’s finances in shambles? Has student performance plummeted? Nope. In fact, to Smith’s credit, things in the district have hummed right along under his leadership. Rather, Thomas is seeking to oust Smith over an issue that has nothing to do with the actual educational mission of OPSB: district construction contracts.

Board member Cynthia Cade, the Robin to Ira Thomas' Batman
Don’t let the smile fool you: Cynthia Cade has strongly supported Thomas’ effort to sack Stan Smith

As noted in a recent article in the The Advocate, both Thomas and board ally Cynthia Cade have focused much of their energy over the past year on “ensuring that district contractors hire minority-owned businesses for construction work.” Last summer, Thomas and Cade successfully pushed a resolution requiring that 35% of the value of each district contract be directed toward toward minority-owned contractors, certified as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs). In spite of this success, Thomas and Cade again raised the issue at OPSB’s September meeting, when they hijacked board’s agenda to interrogate Smith and comptroller Wayne DeLarge (video: starts at 26:40 here and continues here) about the decision to allocate additional funding and staff to the district’s charter school office rather than the DBE office. When Smith attempted to offer an explanation, Thomas simply ignored him and instead insinuated that prejudice somehow played a role in the Superintendent’s decision.

Ensuring that DBEs receive a fair share of district contract work should be a priority for OPSB’s administration and although they have sought to portray the Superintendent as an opponent of the program, neither Thomas nor Cade have produced a shred of evidence indicating that Smith has sought to undermine it. Ultimately, it’s become clear that the motives behind these attacks have more to do with power than with the fair allocation of OPSB contracts. Thomas has seized upon the DBE program, intended to promote inclusivity in the district’s business practices, and twisted it into a divisive issue to strengthen his position on the board and install one of his own in the district’s top post.

One issue that has not been explored in the course of this ongoing drama is who stands to possibly benefit from Thomas’ bullying over the DBE program. Interestingly enough, a review of Thomas’ 2012 campaign finance reports surface a number of individuals and entities that are directly or indirectly connected to DBEs:

To be clear, the mere fact that so many supporters of Ira Thomas’ reelection campaign have connections to DBE contracts in no way constitutes evidence of wrongdoing by either the donors or by Thomas. But, it certainly is a coincidence, isn’t it?

In the end, Thomas’ campaign against Stan Smith is ultimately self-defeating because his unscrupulous behavior on this issue, especially since becoming OPSB President, is so reminiscent of the board’s troubled pre-Katrina past. It’s clear that New Orleanians oppose a return to the days when our schools suffered while board members engaged in infighting and corruption. Yet, Thomas’ example undermines any notion that the Orleans Parish School Board, as currently structured, is capable of governing in a way that puts the needs of its students first. When the issue of local control is raised in the future, hopefully we’ll keep this lesson in mind.

For reference, here are links to the Candidate Reports filed by Ira Thomas and referenced above:

In addition, here are the lists of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) in both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes:

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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