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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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NOLA

The Great NOLA Train Wreck Disappointing School Performance Scores Point To Need For Changes

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This story has been updated with additional information below.

The Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) released 2016-17 School and District Performance Scores and letter grades on Tuesday, and while the summative performance of the state’s public schools rose from a “C” to a “B” this past year, the results from New Orleans’ schools can only be described as a train wreck. Three-fifths of the city’s public schools saw their performance scores decline in 2016-17 and the district’s overall grade dropped from a “B” to a “C”.

Every fall, LDOE issues updated letter grades and School Performance Scores (or SPS, which are akin to number grades) for every public school in the state. Scores for elementary schools are based entirely on standardized test results. For middle schools, 95% of SPS is based on testing and 5% is based on credits earned through the end of their students’ freshman year in high school. The SPS formula for high schools takes into account ACT and end-of-course test scores, a “graduation index” that measures factors like Advanced Placement participation, and the cohort graduation rate. All schools can receive bonus points if they make significant academic gains with struggling students.

Graphic from the Louisiana Department of Education.

These annual letter grades and performance scores not only provide families and policymakers with a clear picture of how schools are progressing, but they play an integral role in the state’s accountability system by identifying failing schools that require intervention and determining whether charters should be renewed.

The recent slump in performance in New Orleans couldn’t come at a worse time. More than a dozen charters are up for renewal before the end of the year and the Recovery School District (RSD) is scheduled to hand over control of its schools to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) in July. That means RSD and OPSB officials will face difficult decisions over the fate of several schools in the coming months that will test their commitment to holding the city’s charters accountable. It also means that the city’s education leaders need to step back and identify the root causes of the drop in performance, as well as recommit themselves to focusing on academic achievement as their primary goal.

Now let’s take a closer examination of how schools fared in New Orleans…

The 15 worst performing schools in 2016-17

These 15 schools saw the biggest SPS declines between 2015-16 and 2016-17.

A number of things stand out when looking at the schools that saw the biggest SPS declines in 2016-17, but the most striking is that ReNEW Schools clearly had a terrible year. Four of the charter network’s schools – Schaumburg, Sci Tech, Dolores T. Aaron, and Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak – ended up among fifteen worst-performing schools in the city.

While a case can certainly be made that Schaumburg’s dismal performance is attributable to the fact that it was struck by a tornado in February, it is much harder to make excuses for the other three ReNEW schools on the list. These results, coming on the heels of several scandals at ReNEW in recent years (including all sorts of malfeasance at ReNew SciTech), should raise serious questions about the future of the network.

It’s also interesting to note that Einstein finds itself among the worst-performing schools in the city. Not only has Einstein rapidly expanded its network of schools (and just got approval to open a new school in Little Rock), but OPSB recently cited Einstein for failing to provide bus transportation to many of its elementary students.

Einstein is currently gearing up for a legal fight over the district’s transportation mandate – a policy that every other school in the city has to follow – that they are unlikely to win. Perhaps if Einstein spent more time focused on academics and less on trying to skirt the rules, they wouldn’t find themselves near the bottom of the pile.

The 15 worst performing schools over the past four years

These 15 schools have had the biggest SPS declines over the past four years.

Looking at the fifteen worst performing schools over the past four years, two names in particular stand out: Capdau and Nelson. These two schools were the first taken over by the RSD in 2004 and the fact that they’re still struggling thirteen years later is inexcusable. (The same could be said of Fischer, which was notoriously bad long before Katrina.)

There are also a few surprises on the list, such as the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School now finds itself among the lowest of the low. King, which was the first school to reopen in the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, was once celebrated as one of the highest-performing schools in the city. That luster has worn off over time (MLK’s leaders have, at different times, faced nepotism charges and been accused of turning away special needs students) and apparently the school’s academic performance has gone with it.

The 15 best performing schools in 2016-17

These 15 schools saw the biggest SPS gains between 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Turning to the brighter side of things, it’s interesting to note that many of the most-improved schools in the city last year also happen to be those that are rarely highlighted in discussions of New Orleans’ reforms. Although not listed above, Ben Franklin High School once again was recognized as the highest-performing public school in the state with a SPS of 141.3 (on a scale of 150).

The highest performing RSD school this year was Livingston Collegiate, an open-enrollment high school launched by the Collegiate Academies network last fall, which received an SPS of 115.9.

The 15 best performing schools over the past four years

These 15 schools have had the biggest SPS gains over the past four years.

Taking a longer view of school improvement over the past four years, KIPP schools – KIPP Renaissance and KIPP N.O. Leadership – clinched two of the most-improved spots on the list. New Orleans Maritime and Military Academy, which employs what could be considered the ultimate “no-excuses” charter model, has also made significant progress, with its SPS rising nearly 26 points since 2014.

Sophie B. Wright and Paul Habans – along with Andrew Wilson, which was taken over by InspireNOLA in 2015 – have also seen double-digit jumps in their performance scores in the past few years.


Update: 11/10/17

I wanted to add two responses from readers regarding the data above. The first comes from Kathy Padian, who formerly oversaw charter schools for the Orleans Parish School Board:

The second comment comes from Rhonda Dale, principal of Abramson Sci Academy, a open-enrollment high school in New Orleans East:


Explore the SPS trends of NOLA schools:


Explore NOLA’s School Performance Scores:

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Louisiana

AFT On The Bayou Union Spends Less In Louisiana, But More On Charter Organizing in New Orleans

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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) spent less overall in Louisiana in the past fiscal year than it did in F.Y. 2016, but the union boosted its funding for charter school organizing efforts in New Orleans by more than forty percent.

An analysis of expenditure data from AFT’s 2017 annual report to U.S. Department of Labor shows that the union spent $2,326,573 in Louisiana during the fiscal year that ended June 30th, a slight decrease from the from $2.49 million it spent in the state in 2016.

About a quarter of AFT’s spending went to political activities, which included nearly $125,000 in payments to the political action committee of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, as well as a $15,000 contribution to Defend Louisiana, a super PAC behind Foster Campbell’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate last fall. In addition, AFT spent nearly $370,000 to influence last year’s Orleans Parish School Board elections, as I exposed in a previous blog post in January.

A diagram showing the distribution of AFT’s F.Y. 2017 spending in Louisiana.

AFT also invested heavily in organizing activities across the Bayou State. It gave nearly $192,000 to Red River United to support recruitment in Bossier, Caddo, and Red River Parishes. AFT spent another $184,000 on organizing in Monroe and $147,000 in Jefferson Parish.

Furthermore, AFT’s most recent annual report suggests that the union is stepping up its efforts to organize charter schools in the Big Easy. In F.Y 2017, AFT national poured $412,926 into its New Orleans Charter Organizing Project, a significant increase from the $292,000 it allocated in 2016. In all, AFT spent more than $850,000 on its New Orleans-based activities in the past year.

Although their recruitment efforts in the city have had mixed success, AFT’s willingness to spend substantial sums of money in New Orleans makes clear they still pose a serious threat. Over the past four years, AFT has steered more than $1.6 million to organize New Orleans charter schools and roll back the city’s reforms.

We need to remain vigilant to ensure that never happens.


Explore the data:


Read AFT’s 2017 annual report:

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