Members of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) are embroiled in bitter infighting once again and (surprise!) the issue at the center of the dispute is the allocation of district construction contracts.
The recent strife began after the district announced its plan to award a $51 million contract to Woodward Design + Build for the construction of Edna Karr’s new high school. Soon thereafter, it was revealed that about $7.5 million of that contract would be subcontracted to Nolmar Construction LLC, a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) owned by the half-siblings of OPSB President Nolan Marshall, Jr.
For his part, Marshall has stated he was not aware that his family’s firm was involved in the bidding process and formally asked U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite to investigate the Nolmar contract matter in an effort to clear him of any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped former OPSB President Ira Thomas from exploiting the situation to publicly attack Marshall, even going so far as to call on him to step down as board president. When asked why he was seeking Marshall’s resignation, Thomas told the Times-Picayune :
“Mr. Marshall’s letter to the U.S. Attorney asking him to investigate does not absolve him from suspicion…[Marshall should] strongly consider stepping down as president until this investigation is concluded. At this point I have no confidence in him.”
In an interview on WBOK-AM last Thursday, Marshall fired back at Thomas, accusing him of having “…a hidden agenda where he’s doing everything he can for certain contractors.” Marshall continued, “What he wants is leadership that demands from contractors that certain subcontractors get the work.”
As I’ve noted previously, several companies and individuals with ties to OPSB construction contracts have contributed to Thomas’ election campaigns, including his failed bid to unseat Sheriff Marlin Gusman in February. Some raised the question of whether those connections played a role in Thomas’ unsuccessful campaign to fire Interim Superintendent Stan Smith last year.
Interestingly enough, a vocal supporter of Thomas’ effort to oust Stan Smith has reemerged to join in his attacks on Nolan Marshall: Pat Bryant. Bryant, a community organizer with the Coalition for Justice and Beyond, led what he termed a “citizens filibuster” during last week’s board meeting, in which he repeatedly abused the requisite public comment periods to raise the Nolmar contract issue and accuse Marshall of malfeasance. Ironically, Pat Bryant was investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2005 on suspicion that he bribed a sanitation official to secure a DBE contract connected to the city’s trash hauling agreement.
On Monday, the sniping descended into a full-scale shouting match when Thomas and Bryant appeared on WBOK-AM’s “The Good Morning Show,” hosted by none other than former City Councilman Oliver Thomas, who himself was convicted and sentenced to prison for corruption in 2007. Thomas and Bryant used the airtime to resume their attacks on Marshall, who immediately called into the show to dispute the accusations, and needless to say, things went downhill from there.
If history is any guide, it’s likely that we haven’t seen the end of the current melodrama, in spite of the fact that the Nolmar contract is now a moot point. Interim Superintendent Stan Smith has since announced that after re-scoring Woodward Design + Build’s proposal, the company was no longer the recommended contractor.
Nevertheless, the fight between Marshall and Thomas has no doubt only further eroded the public’s confidence in OPSB’s ability to manage the city’s schools. As the Cowen Institute’s recent public opinion poll made clear, there is little enthusiasm for returning RSD schools to local control anytime soon.
Given all the nonsense that’s taken place on the school board over the past two years, who could blame them?