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Now Playing: Irascible Ira & the Ghosts of Politics Past

The Ghosts of OPSB Politics Past. Haven't we seen this movie before?
The Ghosts of OPSB Politics Past. Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Following the Orleans Parish School Board these days is like watching the remake of a lousy movie: the actors are different, but the protagonists are still boorish, the plot is still clunky, and you already know that it’s going to end badly.

For those of us who suffered through the slow-motion car wreck that was OPSB in the years leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the race-baiting, backbiting, and gridlock on display at OPSB’s meeting last Tuesday was uncannily reminiscent of the strife during the tenure of former NOPS Superintendent Anthony Amato. In fact, the similarities to that period are so pronounced that some are wondering whether the board’s recent troubles reflect a return of the cronyism and political patronage that many hoped were washed away in the storm.

As discussed previously [see: “Ira, Stan & Much Ado About DBEs“], much of the recent controversy on the board stems from OPSB President Ira Thomas’ ongoing campaign to oust Superintendent Stan Smith. Although his two previous attempts to replace Smith (at the board’s meeting in February and his attempt to call an emergency meeting in June) ended in failure, Thomas once again renewed his attacks at a press conference on June 28th. At that meeting, Thomas, joined by board allies Leslie Ellison and Cynthia Cade, reiterated accusations that Smith has sought to undermine the district’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, claimed the Interim Superintendent may be guilty of “fraud and deceit,” and again called for his removal.

More Background: Campaign Filings, Other Documents
For reference, here is a link to a collection of several documents related to this story, including candidate reports filed by Ira Thomas, previous articles, and documents from NOLA OIG & Jacobs/CSRS. This collection is updated on an ongoing basis.

While his statement was met with applause by the roomful of supporters invited to the press conference [N.B.: Cade rudely ordered a staff member from OPSB’s Charter School Office – a department deemed insufficiently deferential to the Thomas-Cade-Ellison faction – to leave the room before the event started.], Thomas once again failed to produce any hard evidence to support his accusations. Instead, Thomas attempted to bolster his position by claiming that “the community” is demanding Smith’s resignation, as heard in this audio clip recorded by the Times-Picayune‘s Danielle Dreilinger:

Thomas’ inability to articulate any substantive basis for his near obsession with removing Stan Smith has left many board observers scratching their heads. As Andre Perry, former professor and WWNO education commentator, told the Times-Picayune, “I don’t know what he stands forNobody does. Why get rid of these people? What’s the point?” Karran Harper-Royal, a community activist who generally supports the board, also questioned Thomas’ approach in the same article saying, “He’s kind of like a bull in a china shop instead of being more like a ballerina. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” Meanwhile, others have questioned the motives of the two community groups  – the Coalition for Justice and Beyond and the Alliance of Minority Contractors – that have appeared from the shadows to support Thomas’ crusade and this is where things get interesting…

Pat Bryant's prepared comments from the June 28 press conference. His "embargoed" statement belie contention that Justice & Beyond is a grassroots community organization.
Pat Bryant’s “embargoed” statement from the June 28th press conference.

From the very beginning, Pat Bryant, a “community organizer” with the heretofore unknown community organization, the Coalition for Justice and Beyond, has been an outspoken supporter of Thomas’ effort to oust Stan Smith. As reported by the Times-Picayune, Bryant even went so far as to threaten Smith at last month’s groundbreaking ceremony at McDonogh #35, telling him, “We are going to run you over with a Mack truck.” While Stan Smith was rattled enough to file a police report after the incident, Bryant circulated a statement at the June 28th press conference that claimed he only used the Mack truck statement “figuratively” before listing a number of unsubstantiated claims intended to illustrate Smith’s incompetence.

Who is Pat Bryant and why has he suddenly emerged as one of Thomas’ biggest supporters? Perhaps unsurprisingly, a look at his background reveals other shady encounters. In 2005, Bryant was investigated by the US Attorney’s Office in regard to a high-priced consulting contract he was awarded for “community outreach” connected to the city’s trash hauling agreement with BFI by former city Sanitation Director, Lynn Wiltz. Bryant, then President of Urban Strategies, LLC, shortly thereafter paid Wiltz’s docking fees at South Shore Marina. Unfortunately, like many of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Morial-era corruption probes, the investigation into Bryant and Wiltz was sidelined by Hurricane Katrina, and apparently, charges were never filed.

A 2005 corruption probe involving Pat Bryant's (left) and Lynn Wiltz is just the tip of the iceberg.
A 2005 corruption probe involving Pat Bryant’s (left) and Lynn Wiltz is just the tip of the iceberg.

But questions surrounding Bryant’s past involvement with Lynn Wiltz is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s even more interesting is Lynn Wiltz’s connections to Ira Thomas and several of his campaign supporters, in particular those from the construction industry. To start, according to documents from New Orleans Office of the Inspector General, as well as her LinkedIn profile, Lynn Wiltz is now consulting for Jacobs/CSRS, the construction & engineering partnership that currently holds a contract with OPSB. In addition, Wiltz – along with several individuals and organizations directly or indirectly linked to Jacobs/CSRS – contributed to Ira Thomas’ 2012 OPSB reelection campaign, as shown in the table of Ira’s selected contributors below [See the full list of contributors here]:

Filing Date Filing # Contributor Name Amount Notes
10/29/12 32854 Imre Hegedus & Associates $2,500.00 Hegedus & Associates has been retained as architects on several OPSB projects, according to reports from Jacobs/CSRS
2/14/12 30154 Circular Consulting, LLC $2,500.00 Circular consults with Jacobs/CSRS on OPSB & RSD contracts according to their website.
2/14/12 30154 Imre Hegedus & Associates $2,500.00 Hegedus & Associates has been retained as architects on several OPSB projects, according to reports from Jacobs/CSRS
10/29/12 32865 Curtis Soderberg $1,000.00 Director at CSRS . Jacobs/CSRS contracts with Circular Consulting, LLC & OPSB
12/6/12 33641 Jimmie Woods $500.00 Owner of Metro Disposal, Inc. Metro Disposal has received contracts from OPSB for the renovation at Colton, according to reports from Jacobs/CSRS. The US Attorney’s Office also subpoenaed records from Metro Disposal regarding contracts that they received from the city sanitation department while Lynn Wiltz was Sanitation Director, in particular, a generous contract with the AMID/Metro Partnership that allowed the company to run the Old Gentilly Landfill and keep 97 percent of the proceeds.
12/6/12 33641 Brian Egana $500.00 President, CE/FO, Circular Consulting, LLC. Circular consults with Jacobs/CSRS on OPSB & RSD contracts according to their website.
10/29/12 32865 Hewitt-Washington & Associates $200.00 According to documents from Jacobs/CSRS, Hewitt-Washington has been retained as architects for several OPSB/RSD projects.
10/29/12 32865 Michael Rice $100.00 Recovery Coordinator at Jacobs/CSRS. Jacobs/CSRS contracts with Circular Consulting, LLC & OPSB
10/29/12 32865 William Rousselle $100.00 President & CEO of Bright Moments, LLC. Manages DBE outreach for OPSB/RSD according to documents from Jacobs/CSRS and recently created the OPSB DBE team’s School Construction Newsletter that suddenly appeared on the district’s website on July 15.
10/29/12 32865 Lynn Wiltz $100.00 In 2005, former city sanitation director Lynn Wiltz was investigated by the US Attorney’s Office for awarding high-priced consulting contracts to Pat Bryant, then owner of Urban Strategies, LLC & now with the Coalition of Justice & Beyond. Bryant later paid Wiltz’s docking fees at South Shore Marina. No charges were ever filed. According to her LinkedIn page and documents from the New Orleans Office of the Inspector General, Wiltz currently is currently a consultant for Jacobs/CSRS.
10/29/12 32865 J.C. Patin Group, LLC $100.00 Owner Joseph Patin is Vice President of the Alliance for Minority Contractors. According to the J.C. Patin website, the company has been involved in several OPSB/RSD school related projects.
10/29/12 32865 Marvin Daniels $100.00 Works with Jacobs/CSRS. Jacobs/CSRS contracts with Circular Consulting, LLC & OPSB
OPSB President Ira Thomas poses with a member of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
OPSB President Ira Thomas poses with a member of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Finally, it has been rumored that Smith and Herman Taitt, OPSB’s Facilities Director who oversees the district’s capital projects, have been at odds for the past several months. As noted in a recent article in The Advocate, Taitt appears to have openly allied himself with Thomas, as evidenced by the fact that Taitt attended the June 28th press conference and afterward approached Thomas to shake his hand and say, “Thank you.” A senior district administrator recently confirmed the close relationship between Thomas and Taitt and claimed that the duo were colluding to remove Smith from office.

Clearly, the more one digs into the murky depths of alliances, records, and relationships, the shadier and more complex things become. And while certainly not conclusive evidence of illegal or improper conduct on behalf of OPSB President Ira Thomas, the fact that so many of his supporters have connections to construction contracts raises red flags about Thomas’ otherwise inexplicable fixation on firing Superintendent Stan Smith over the DBE issue. In the meantime though, Thomas continues to shamelessly present his actions as a righteous crusade to right historical wrongs, all the while maintaining he has the best interests of children at heart. However, as his recent performance at OPSB’s July meeting demonstrates (see video below), it’s little more than a hackneyed routine from a bad actor. Instead of watching and waiting for this show’s inevitably regrettable denouement, the New Orleans community needs to step in and simply rewrite the script.

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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