While we’re told “the cream always rises to the top,” when one considers the rogues’ gallery of corrupt and/or incompetent public officials who have brought disgrace to New Orleans over the years, it’s not unreasonable to believe the opposite is true in the Crescent City. In fact, New Orleanians have become so inured to failures in leadership that we tend to view our local government institutions with skepticism, if not outright cynicism.
Perhaps no public body is viewed with as much distrust as the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), thanks to a series of embarrassing management and corruption scandals in the years prior to Hurricane Katrina. Although things have improved somewhat since the storm, over the past few years OPSB has been wracked by power struggles and infighting, particularly around the issue of district construction contracts. Even worse, the district has been without a permanent superintendent since April 2012 – that is, until now.
At its monthly board meeting on Tuesday, OPSB got itself together and finally selected a new leader, voting unanimously in favor of Henderson Lewis, Jr., who currently heads East Feliciana Public Schools. While it is yet to be seen whether Lewis lives up to the ambitious goals he’s set for himself, we should take this opportunity to recognize the person who’s been at helm of the district for the past two-and-a-half years: Interim Superintendent Stan Smith.
Stan Smith didn’t seek his current role and will no doubt be more than happy to hand over the reins to Lewis. At 68, one suspects Stan could have easily walked off stage and into retirement at any point, leaving OPSB to its own self-destructive devices. Who would blame him? He’s been disrespected and humiliated by board members. He’s been unfairly accused of racism and incompetence. He’s even been threatened by an individual with a shady past masquerading as a civil rights activist.
Nevertheless, Smith has doggedly stuck with it because the job simply needed to be done. For almost three years now, he’s managed the day-to-day operations of the district quietly and effectively, without the drama that has so often characterized the deliberations of the school board. Furthermore, Smith has managed to successfully steer the district while fending off repeated attempts by board member Ira Thomas to oust him from office.
When considered together, Smith and Thomas are a study in contrasts. Smith is modest, self-effacing, and has discharged his responsibilities as Interim Superintendent with a professionalism befitting the position. Thomas, on the other hand, is a self-serving bully who sees the school board as a stepping stone to higher office, but possesses neither the character, nor good sense to reach beyond it.
Although Thomas accused Smith of “fraud and deceit” and repeatedly called into question his “character, professional competence, and/or physical or mental health,” he produced zero evidence to support his claims. In the end, Smith refused to step down and Thomas failed to muster the votes needed to remove him from the district’s top post.
When asked why Smith refused to budge in the face of Thomas’ slanderous attacks, his lawyer said, “He thinks he’s benefiting the students, the district and the parish.” Many of us would agree with that assessment. Through it all, Smith has revealed himself to be an all-too-rare character in the New Orleans experience: a genuine public servant. For this reason, he not only deserves our respect, he deserves our gratitude.
Thank you, Stan.
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