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Sketchy & Beyond Pat Bryant's Group Wades into School Board Politics

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Just when New Orleans is unifying behind a plan for a new era in school governance, the activist group Justice & Beyond is trying to drag the education system back to its dark ages. It was recently uncovered that the faux civil rights organization is backing three candidates in the upcoming Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) elections:

  • Walter Umrani in District 4 (Algiers, French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater)
  • David Alvarez in District 6 (Audubon, Carrollton, Gert Town, Hollygrove)
  • Kwame Smith in District 7 (CBD, Tremé, 7th Ward)

Those who follow school board politics in the Crescent City are no doubt familiar with Justice & Beyond and its leader, Pat Bryant. Bryant is a fixture at OPSB’s monthly meetings, where he regularly takes to the podium to harangue board members for a varying array of perceived injustices, usually related to the allocation of district contracts.

While Justice & Beyond’s involvement in the OPSB races is not necessarily a surprise, it’s also not a welcome development. As history shows, whenever Pat Bryant or his group gets involved in something, sketchiness surely follows.

A history of chicanery and shady dealings

Back in the summer of 2005, the U.S. Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into a pair of pricey consulting contracts Bryant was awarded for “community outreach” by the city’s then-sanitation manager, Lynn Wiltz. Soon thereafter, Bryant began paying for Wiltz’s docking fees and boat slip at South Shore Marina. However, Hurricane Katrina sidelined the investigation and neither Bryant nor Wiltz were ever charged.1

Then in 2012, Bryant and Justice & Beyond emerged from the shadows to support former OPSB member Ira Thomas in his effort to oust then-Interim Superintendent Stan Smith. Thomas accused Smith of trying to undermine the district’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program, which seeks to steer at least 35% of each OPSB contract to local, minority-owned businesses, and demanded his recognition. When Smith refused, a power struggle ensued that dragged on for months and months.

As Thomas maneuvered, Bryant and Justice & Beyond incessantly attacked Smith at board meetings and in the media, portraying him as both incompetent and racist. Bryant even went so far as to threaten Smith – who filed a police report over the incident – at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new McDonogh #35 campus.

Thankfully, Thomas and Bryant’s campaign against Smith was ultimately unsuccessful. Instead, Thomas’ antics drew the attention of federal investigators who indicted him for accepting a bribe from – you guessed it – a DBE contractor. He pled guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison in March 2015.

Former OPSB president Ira Thomas was sentenced to prison on corruption charges last year.

Former OPSB president Ira Thomas was sentenced to prison on corruption charges last year.

Most recently, Pat Bryant and Justice & Beyond campaigned against a millage renewal that was up for a vote in December 2014. Its passage was important because the tax receipts were dedicated to a maintenance fund that would pay for ongoing repairs to the city’s newly built and refurbished buildings. But Justice & Beyond instead tried to turn the vote into a referendum on the Recovery School District and urged citizens to vote against the renewal.

The group’s anti-millage campaign combined race-baiting with ad hominem attacks on school board members who didn’t embrace their agenda. For example, one Justice & Beyond flyer called a group of OPSB members opportunists, traitors, and white supremacists – a group that included Nolan Marshall, Jr., who is African-American.

This Justice & Beyond flyer called four OPSB members white supremacists, including Nolan Marshall, who is black.

This Justice & Beyond flyer called four OPSB members white supremacists, including Nolan Marshall, who is black.

Fortunately, New Orleanians showed little interest in the old school political games Justice & Beyond were selling. When the ballots were finally tallied, the millage renewal passed easily with 60% of the vote.

Looking to extend losing streak

Given Justice & Beyond’s track record thus far, I’m not sure there’s much to worry about in the upcoming elections. The candidates they’re supporting for OPSB reflect the fact they’re screaming from the margins. Neither Walter Umrani nor David Alvarez are widely known outside of their circles and both are facing competitors with infinitely more name recognition. Plus, when Kwame Smith ran against Nolan Marshall in 2012, he could barely garner 11% of the vote, while Marshall won the three-way contest in the first round with 68%.

Last time Kwame Smith faced Nolan Marshall, it was a blowout.

Last time Kwame Smith faced Nolan Marshall, it was a blowout.

Of course, Bryant and Justice & Beyond will no doubt spew their usual talking points – i.e., charter schools are run by the KKK, they’re a conspiracy against children, etc. But at the end of the day, people aren’t simply aren’t fooled by their divisive, conspiratorial messages and nakedly self-serving motivations.


  1. On the other hand, Bryant and Wiltz continued to do business together. The Louisiana Secretary of State lists both Bryant and Wiltz as officers of a non-profit corporation called the Gulf Coast Disaster Management Institute which was registered in 2009 and went inactive in 2014. 

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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