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.
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:
- Circular Consulting, LLC of New Orleans, LA (02/14/12 filing)
- True Wall Enterprise, LLC of Marrero (10/29/12 filing)
- J.C. Patin Group, LLC of New Orleans (10/29/12 filing)
- Hewitt-Washington & Associates of New Orleans (10/29/12 filing)
- Marvin Daniels of Jacobs/CSRS [contracts with Circular Consulting, LLC, OPSB] (10/29/12 filing)
- Michael Rice, Recovery Coordinator at Jacobs/CSRS [contracts with Circular Consulting, LLC, OPSB] (10/29/12 filing)
- Curtis Soderberg, director at CSRS [contracts with Circular Consulting, LLC, OPSB] (10/29/12 filing)
- Richard Briscoe, V.P. of Business Development at Kenall, Inc. of Harahan (10/29/12 filing)
- William Rousselle, President & CEO of Bright Moments, LLC of New Orleans [managed DBE outreach for OPSB/RSD] (10/29/12 filing)
- Charbonnet & Associates of New Orleans, LA (11/08/12 filing)
- Jimmie Woods, owner of Metro Disposal, Inc. of New Orleans [contracted to work on the renovation at Colton] (11/08/12 filing)
- Brian Egana, President & CE/FO of Circular Consulting, LLC of New Orleans, LA (12/06/12 filing)
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:
After Janus, The Drought? LAE & LFT are downplaying the impact of the Janus v. AFSCME decision, but both are subsidized by their national unions
The United States Supreme Court handed public sector unions – including the teachers unions – a major defeat on Wednesday with their decision in Janus v. AFSCME, in which a majority of justices agreed that mandatory agency fee laws violate the First Amendment rights of non-union public employees.
In the 21 states with agency fee laws, public employees covered by collective bargaining agreements were required to pay fees to the union to cover bargaining costs, even if they refused to join. Because agency fees only offered a small discount when compared to union dues, many individuals felt compelled to become members.
Now that the Supreme Court has struck down those laws, many observers expect that public sector unions will lose anywhere from 10-30% of their members, and by extension, a big chunk of their revenues. In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, National Education Association (NEA) president Lily Eskelsen García admitted her union expects to lose at least 200,000 members over the next 18 months, depriving them of around $28 million in funding.
What about Louisiana?
Louisiana, of course, is a right-to-work state, meaning that public sector unions here are unlikely to see a drop in their membership, but the Janus decision could have a significant financial impact on the state’s two teachers unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT).
In an article in The Advocate on Wednesday, officials from LAE and LFT sought to downplay the potential fallout from the ruling, insisting that any impact on their organizations would be minimal. They also wildly exaggerated the size of their respective unions, with both LAE and LFT claiming around 20,000 members.
Mike Antonucci, a researcher who has been writing about teachers unions for decades, released figures on Wednesday showing that LAE had 10,461 members in 2016-17, of which only 9,416 were full dues-paying members. While precise numbers are not available for LFT, data from tax filings and public records requests show that the union receives far less in dues payments than their counterparts at LAE, while charging their members more on an annual basis. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that LFT is even smaller than LAE’s 10,000 members.
Those tax filings, along with annual reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, also reveal that both LAE and LFT are heavily subsidized by their national unions. According to tax returns, LAE reported $3,291,199 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, although Department of Labor reports show that nearly 30% of that money came from the National Education Association.
Likewise, LFT reported $1,809,239 in revenue in F.Y. 2016, but nearly 27% of that total came from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Moreover, as I’ve noted in previous posts, AFT also provides substantial funding to its local affiliates, like the United Teachers of New Orleans, Jefferson Federation of Teachers, and Red River United.
Will the money dry up?
Up to now, LAE and LFT could depend on their national unions to provide a substantial portion of their annual budgets, but the Supreme Court’s decision this week means that steady stream of funding could begin to dry up in the not-too-distant future. While It’s unlikely that AFT and NEA will completely cut-off subsidies to their affiliates in right-to-work states like Louisiana, there’s no escaping the fact that there will be less money to go around.
How that will ultimately impact the activities of Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers is yet to be seen.
The Red River Ripoff Shreveport's AFT Affiliate Uses Bureaucratic Obstacles To Keep Dues Coming in
Red River United (RRU), the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union representing educators in Caddo, Bossier, and Red River Parishes, is using bureaucratic hurdles and subterfuge in an attempt to prevent members from leaving the organization.
A reader forwarded me a series of emails regarding three of the union’s current members who submitted a union drop request to Red River officials in October, indicating that they wished to end their affiliation with RRU and stop the monthly deduction of dues from their bank accounts.
The receipt of those forms was acknowledged by the union. Nevertheless, when the three teachers checked with their banks at the end of the month, Red River United had once again deducted dues payments from their accounts. On November 1st, an email was sent to RRU officials notifying them of their mistake and requesting that the union refund those dues to the three individuals.
An emailed response from RRU’s in-house counsel, Elizabeth Gibson, flatly refused to refund those payments, explaining that the three teachers “executed a confidential agreement with Red River United (Membership Form), wherein the individuals authorized Red River United, or its designee, to draft their bank account each month for the amount indicated in the agreement for each billing period.”
“Further, they acknowledged that they must give at least 30 days written notice to Red River United to cancel future automated debits. Red River United did not receive written notice at least 30 days in advance personally from the individuals indicating they had chosen to cancel their automated debits/membership. They must physically come to the offices of Red River United to cancel the bank draft due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein. These individuals have not done so. Accordingly, they are not entitled to a refund of the monies they authorized to be withdrawn from their bank accounts.”
Gibson added that the teachers needed to physically go to the union’s offices to provide a so-called “wet signature” in the presence of a Red River United employee in order to officially withdraw from the union and stop the monthly bank withdrawals.
A ridiculous (and dishonest?) response
Gibson’s response is not only ridiculous, but possibly dishonest. It’s also clearly an attempt by Red River United to make it as difficult as possible for current members to dropout of the union.
To start, the union’s “confidential agreement” – i.e., RRU’s membership form – isn’t all that confidential (in fact, I’ve included a copy of it at the bottom of this post). Nowhere on the membership form does it say anything about the requirement to provide a “wet signature” in the presence of an RRU employee to leave the union and stop monthly payments.
Moreover, Gibson’s contention that the three teachers needed to physically go to RRU’s offices to cancel the bank drafts “due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein” is laughable. Anyone who has ever had a subscription to a newspaper or magazine can tell you that you don’t need to go to their offices to cancel it. Plus, there’s nothing “confidential” about the process. All Red River United needs to do is notify their bank to stop the monthly automatic withdrawals for those three individuals. End of story.
So why is Red River United trying to make these three teachers jump through bureaucratic hoops when they clearly don’t want to be part of their organization anymore? I suspect the union is trying to force them to come to their offices so they can pressure them to remain members, which is the kind of behavior you might expect from a dodgy timeshare broker, not a teachers union.
Nevertheless, teachers unions in other states have increasingly employed similar tactics to stem the departure of their members. For example, after Michigan became a right-to-work state in 2012, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) changed their opt-out policy to mandate that teachers withdrawal in August and force them to send their resignation requests to an obscure P.O. box address hidden on their website. The union subsequently refused to honor opt-out requests that were sent directly to MEA headquarters or were received outside of the month of August.
I expect that we’ll see even more of these sort of schemes in the coming months. In September, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case which argues that requiring public employees to pay agency fees to unions (including teachers unions) is unconstitutional. It is widely expected that the Court will end up striking down the laws in the 22 states that currently mandate agency fees, meaning that teachers unions across the country will soon be scrambling to come up with ways to keep their members from dropping out.
Because Louisiana has long been a right-to-work state, the Janus case should have little direct impact here. At the same time, that’s exactly why Red River United’s efforts to make it as difficult as possible for members to leave their organization needs to be called out. Louisiana’s public school teachers have the right to join a union or not. Therefore, they should be able to leave a union just as easily as they signed up. If Red River United wants to salvage some of its integrity, it should immediately accept the resignation of the three educators in question and refund their dues as soon as possible.
Read Red River United’s membership form:
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