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Now Playing: Irascible Ira & the Ghosts of Politics Past

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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.

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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Sketchy & Beyond – PE + COBe Careful What You Wish For – PE + COThe Definition of Outrageous | PE + COUnethical Behavior at OPSB? Tell Us Something We Don’t Know. | PE + CO Recent comment authors
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This Article was mentioned on peterccook.com

Be Careful What You Wish For – PE + CO

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The Definition of Outrageous | PE + CO


Today I received several emails from Vimeo that they had taken down a few of my video clips in response to notices they received that I violated their Community Guidelines. Around the same time, Danielle Dreilinger, education reporter at the Times-Picayune, tweeted the following about these videos:

.@petercook‘s anti-OPSB video, which apparently is so outrageous I was advised not to watch it at OPSB comms, is no longer on Vimeo. #nolaed
— Danielle Dreilinger (@djdreilinger) November 14, 2014

I had shared these videos on Twitter in urging eligible Recovery School District charters to remain with the RSD rather than return to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board. Apparently, these videos hit a nerve with someone at OPSB, so much so that they sought to have them taken offline and advised reporters not to watch them (I have since reposted the videos on YouTube here and here).
The irony of all of this is that these so-called “anti-OPSB videos” are anything but “outrageous” – in fact, they’re unaltered clips of current OPSB board members at public meetings engaging in shameful, embarrassing behavior. One is a video of Board Member Leslie Ellison testifying before the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee in 2012 about her refusal to sign a contract with the Louisiana Department of Education because it included a clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. She was testifying in support of a bill that would have allowed charter schools to discriminate against gays and lesbians.1 The other clip is from a July 2013 OPSB board meeting in which then-Board President Ira Thomas goes off on a racially-charged tirade against Interim Superintendent Stan Smith.
I don’t consider it outrageous to remind charter schools that this is the type of behavior they can expect to deal with if they choose to return to the oversight of OPSB. What I do consider outrageous is the following:
OPSB has been without a permanent superintendent since June 30th, 2012 and their search for a district leader is currently floundering
In the meantime, a board faction led by Ira Thomas has repeatedly tried to remove Interim Superintendent Stan Smith for no reason other than the color of his skin
OPSB members condone and defend bullying at school board meetings, including hecklers who direct “racial or other types of slurs” at speakers addressing the board
OPSB has spent the bulk of its time over the last several years embroiled in infighting over the allocation of district construction contracts rather than focusing on substantive issues impacting the children the district serves
A resolution to rededicate a school board millage to create a maintenance fund for school buildings passed by only one vote, after several members opted to put politics above the best interests of our public school students
Given all of the Orleans Parish School Board’s shortcomings over the past several years, the only thing outrageous is that anyone would believe that charter schools should return to local control.

Subsequently, Ellison insinuated that being gay or lesbian is a “choice” in a heated exchange with an openly gay colleague on the school board. 

The Definition of Outrageous</span> <span class="entry-subtitle">A Look At What Happens When OPSB Officials Don’t Like Your Message</span>’,url: ‘http://peterccook.com/2014/11/14/the-definition-of-outrageous/’,contentID: ‘post-3411’,suggestTags: ‘Censorship,Charter Schools,district,Education reform,Ira Thomas,Leslie Ellison,Recovery School District,RSD,School Board,Vimeo’,providerName: ‘PE + CO’,styling: ‘full’ });return false”>  
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Unethical Behavior at OPSB? Tell Us Something We Don’t Know. | PE + CO


Perhaps the University of Houston should review its screening process for job applicants.
On Monday, the U of H issued a press release announcing the appointment of Herman Taitt as Executive Director of Facilities Management for the university. The glowing announcement included a quote from Associate Vice Chancellor Emily Messa, who said:

“Herman’s extensive and diverse background will serve him well here at the University of Houston. We welcome him and know his knowledge and experience will be an asset for Facilities Management and the University.”

The University of Houston announced Herman Taitt’s appointment as Executive Director of Facilities Management.According to the Louisiana Board of Ethics, Taitt’s “extensive and diverse background” includes abuse of office while serving in his previous role as the Executive Director of Operations for the Orleans Parish School Board. As outlined in charges filed earlier this month [see filing below], the Board of Ethics says Taitt pressured GCA Services Group, a private custodial and maintenance services company, to hire Andrenetta Thomas for a “coordinator” job that was not included in GCA’s contract with the school board.
As I noted in a previous blog post, Taitt openly allied himself with former OPSB President Ira Thomas during the latter’s effort to oust Interim Superintendent Stan Smith last year. At the time, a senior OPSB administrator told me that they believed Taitt and Thomas were colluding to remove Smith from office so the duo could steer district contracts to their “friends.”
Lo and behold, Ira Thomas was the first to come to Taitt’s defense when news broke of the ethics charges on Monday. In an interview with The Advocate, Thomas claimed he was “surprised” by the charges and said, “From the information I have, I don’t believe [Taitt] was in violation.”
Ira Thomas is possibly the only person in the City of New Orleans surprised by the recent ethics charges.At this point, I think it’s safe to say that Ira Thomas may be only person in the entire City of New Orleans surprised by the recent ethics charges. The incessant in-fighting and power struggles that have paralyzed the board over the last two years have largely centered around the issue of district contracts. Shady individuals and organizations take to the podium at every board meeting to browbeat board members and district administrators over the allocation of those contracts. Now we learn that a senior OPSB official is accused of twisting the arm of a vendor to provide someone with a job. The question raised by this incident isn’t “How could this have happened?” but “What other OPSB bombshells are just waiting to be uncovered?”
No wonder why some members of the school board seem so dead set against allowing the New Orleans Inspector General to audit the district’s finances. They’re no doubt afraid of what he would might dig up.

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NOLA Public School Enrollment By Letter Grade: 2018 vs. 2005 Schools Still Have A Way To Go, But We're Light Years From Where We Started

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As I detailed in a post last week, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) recently released annual school letter grades and School Performance Scores (SPS) for the 2017-18 school year.

A conversation on Facebook spurred my curiosity to find out how many students were attending A, B, C, D, and F-graded schools in New Orleans.

I pulled February 2018 Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) enrollment data, matched it with school letter grade data for each New Orleans school, and tallied the number of students attending schools at each performance level. (You can see my spreadsheet with this data here.)

Finally, I created a chart showing the number of students attending schools at each letter grade…

A little over two-thirds of New Orleans public school students attended schools graded “C” or better last year. Ten percent were enrolled in “F” schools last year, although that number has likely shrunk, as three of those failing schools (Mahalia Jackson, ReNEW McDonogh City Park, and Sylvanie Williams) closed at the end of the 2017-2018 year.


Read my earlier take on NOLA school performance:

The Grades Are In… | PE + CO

On Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) released annual school letter grades and School Performance Scores (SPS) – which are akin to number grades – for the 2017-18 school year. For the first time, the formulas used to measure school performance incorporate students’ growth from year to year on state standardized tests.


Now let’s look at the distribution in 2005…

I then decided to take it a step further and create the same chart for New Orleans students in 2004-2005, the last full school year prior to Hurricane Katrina.

However, there’s a few things that I need to mention about the data. To start, Louisiana’s accountability system didn’t assign letter grades to schools until 2011; back in 2005, schools only received School Performance Scores (SPS). Therefore, I used the 2011 grading scale to assign a letter grade for each New Orleans school in 2004-2005.

The grading scale used by the Louisiana Department of Education in 2011.

The second, more important point is that the performance bar for schools has risen significantly since 2005. Not only has the state adopted a more rigorous set of academic standards in ELA and math based on the Common Core, but the grading scale has shifted, making it more difficult for schools to get an “A”.

Furthermore, this year, LDOE stopped grading schools on a curve used to ease the transition to the state’s new standards. Previously, schools received SPS points for students who scored “Basic” or above on the state’s standardized tests. Now, students have to achieve “Mastery” or above to be counted in their school’s SPS score. In short, if New Orleans schools in 2005 were judged by today’s performance standards, the number of “F” schools would be much higher.

Finally, the enrollment data used for the chart below comes from the October 2004 MFP count.

With that said, here’s how many students were enrolled at schools at each letter grade in 2005…

This chart illustrates how dismal the situation was for New Orleans’ public schools in 2005. Nearly two-thirds of the city’s students – more than 39,000 kids – were stuck in failing schools. Only 16% were enrolled in schools graded “C” or higher.

Clearly much has changed in the past thirteen years. While we still have too many kids in “D” and “F” schools, not only are more kids attending better schools, but they’re performing at a much higher level.

That’s something people said couldn’t be done. We proved them wrong.

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NOLA

The Grades Are In… A Look At 2018 NOLA School Letter Grades & School Performance Scores

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On Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) released annual school letter grades and School Performance Scores (SPS) – which are akin to number grades – for the 2017-18 school year.

For the first time, the formulas used to measure school performance incorporate students’ growth from year to year on state standardized tests. Here’s how the change impacts performance measures at various grade configurations:

  • For elementary grades, 25% of letter grades and SPS scores are based on student growth, with the rest based on an absolute measure of achievement on state standardized tests;
  • For middle grades, 25% of letter grades and SPS scores are based on student growth, 70% is based on an absolute measure of student performance on tests, and 5% is based on a metric that measures how many credits their recently graduated students accumulate in their freshman year of high school.
  • For high schools, 25% is based on a metric incorporating test performance and student growth, 25% is based on the cohort graduation rate, 25% is based on achievement on the ACT and career-readiness assessments, and the final 25% is based on a metric that takes into account in how many students take college-level classes (such as Advanced Placement) and earn Jump Start credentials.

A graphic showing the components of letter grades and SPS scores at the elementary, middle, and high school levels from the Louisiana Department of Education.

Because the student growth measure is new this year, LDOE also included letter grades and SPS scores that were calculated using the old formula to make it easier to compare school performance between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.

One final change to the accountability system also went into effect this year. Students now have to score “Mastery” or above to be counted as on grade level to earn points on the School Performance Score. Previously, students who scored “Basic” or above were considered on grade level. This essentially makes it harder for schools to earn an “A” rating.

Now let’s take a look at how school performance in New Orleans…

How did schools perform this year?

Under the new formula, out of 84 schools operating in New Orleans last year, nearly two-thirds received a grade of “C” or better. Only fifteen schools received failing grades, and of those, five are alternative schools and three were closed at the end of the year (and others in that unfortunate group will likely close at the end of the current school year).

As might be expected, the city’s selective admissions schools were among the highest performers in terms of SPS, with Ben Franklin High School once again securing the top spot with a score of 135.2. However, several open enrollment schools rounded out the top ten, including Warren Easton, Karr, Hynes, New Orleans Military & Maritime Academy (the perennial “sleeper” among the high performers), International School of La., and Alice Harte.

As for the schools that had biggest gains year-over-year, Mildred Osborne topped the list, with an SPS gain of 21.8 points (this is using the old formula to make the scores comparable), followed by Crocker (+15.7), McMain (+13.9), and Encore (+12.2). ReNEW McDonogh City Park also saw one of the biggest year-over-year jumps in SPS (12.8 points), which you have to respect, since the school was headed for closure at the end of school year and yet they went out with a bang.

On the other end of the spectrum, James M. Singleton had the biggest year-over-year drop in SPS, which isn’t much a surprise after the school was rocked by a testing scandal earlier this year which resulted in the resignations of several staff members, including the CEO. Robert Russa Moton, another school that has been under fire in recent months (in its case, for failing to serve special needs students), had the second biggest drop in the district, falling almost 19 SPS points between 2017 and 2018. Back in 2013, Moton was also investigated for cheating and Moton principal Paulette Bruno is battling a a five year-old charge of nepotism before the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Given all these problems, it kind of makes you wonder how these two schools are still open.

Which schools are the best/worst performing over the past five years?

When we take a longer view of performance, the data gets even more interesting, because it surfaces a number of often-overlooked schools that have been quietly getting things done. The school with the biggest improvement over the past five years is KIPP Renaissance, which has seen its SPS score jump an impressive 38.8 points over that period. Paul Habans, is the second Most Improved Player in the district with an SPS gain of nearly 30 points since 2014. Other school improvement standouts include New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy (+27.1 – again, crushing it under-the-radar), Andrew Wilson (+24.4), and Mildred Osborne (+18.1).

KIPP Renaissance and Paul Habans have seen the biggest jumps in SPS in the district over the past five years.

Finally, we come to schools that have seen the biggest declines in SPS over the past five years. If we exclude schools that have been closed, once again Singleton comes out on bottom with a decline of 42.5 points. Landry-Walker High School, which was rocked by a testing scandal from which it hasn’t recovered, had the second biggest SPS drop (-40.4 points) since 2014. The school also received an “F” grade from LDOE on Thursday. Nevertheless, the school was inexplicably praised on social media by the Algiers Charter Schools Association for having “top growth” in Algebra I.

As for the other biggest decliners over the past five years, there are few surprises. Pierre A. Capdau, which was one of the first schools taken over by the RSD prior to Hurricane Katrina, is still struggling all these years later, with its SPS score declining nearly 40 points since 2014. Einstein, which recently fought a legal battle against the district’s transportation requirements that blew up in its face, has declined by nearly 35 points. And rounding out the bottom five is another familiar name, Moton, which has seen its SPS score decline 32 points.


Compare how schools have performed over the past five years:

Use the filters on the right to compare the School Performance Scores of various schools between 2014 and 2018.

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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