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La. Board of Ethics resignation resurrects Orange Jones controversy

6th August 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Fritz Esker
Contributing Writer

After the resignation of Scott Schneider, the vice chair of the Louisiana Board of Ethics, critics are re-examining conflict of interest questions in the case of BESE member Kira Orange Jones.

After being elected in 2011 to be the District 2 (most of Orleans Parish) representative of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), Orange Jones quickly faced accusations of a conflict of interest regarding her work with Teach for America.

Orange Jones is the executive director of Teach for America-Greater New Orleans. TFA has a contract with the Louisiana Department of Education and the Recovery School District exceeding $50,000. As part of the contract, TFA recruits qualified teachers and presents them to schools as employment candidates. BESE is not a party to these contracts, but they are signed by BESE, indicating its approval to spend money appropriated or allocated for Louisiana elementary and secondary schools. Any contract exceeding $50,000 entered into by the La. Dept. of Education or the RSD requires BESE approval. Without BESE approval, the contracts can’t happen.

According to a document the Board of Ethics attorney Tracy Barker sent James Babst, Orange Jones’ attorney, the Code of Ethics would prohibit Orange Jones from providing compensated services to Teach for America while serving as a member of BESE when TFA is seeking a contractual, business, or financial relationship with the La. Dept. of Education or the RSD.

However, at a meeting on August 17, 2012, the board ruled that Orange Jones fell under an exception, which states that there isn’t a conflict of interest if the person can prove their salary isn’t directly affected by the contract, that they own less than a controlling interest in the company, and the person isn’t a director, officer, trustee, or partner in the company.

While no one at the meeting argued that Orange Jones owned a controlling interest in TFA or had her salary affected by the contracts, the discussion hinged on whether or not her position as executive director for Teach for America-Greater New Orleans counted as being an officer in the company.

Despite Barker’s arguments that Orange Jones’ position with Teach for America constituted a conflict of interest, the board voted unanimously that the exception applied to Orange Jones.

Questions about the decision have again arisen in the wake of the recent resignation of Scott Schneider, vice chair of the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Schneider resigned his position via email on Wednesday, July 3.

In Schneider’s resignation email, he expressed gratitude to his colleagues, Board Chair Blake Monrose, Governor Piyush Jindal, and the other board members.

“I thought serving at that time would present a challenge and a unique opportunity to do some good. I was not disappointed,” Schneider wrote.

Schneider said he resigned because he was starting to miss too many meetings because of work and family commitments. As the start of a new school year approached, he realized he would be missing the first meeting of the new year and after making that realization, he decided to resign.

Opponents of Orange Jones have questioned if Schneider had a conflict of interest while participating in the vote on whether or not she could work for both BESE and Teach for America. Schneider is the associate general counsel of Tulane University, whose Cowen Institute lists Teach for America as a partner.

Schneider denied allegations of a conflict of interest and the notion that his resignation was tied in any way to the Kira Orange Jones decision.

“My resignation from the board has nothing to do with that,” Schneider said. “There was never a conflict of interest in that matter or any other.”

Kathleen Allen, ethics administrator, felt that Schneider behaved fairly in the case. During the August 17 meeting, Allen voiced concerns about expanding exceptions in the case of Orange Jones, but she said the ultimate decision was the result of several group discussions, not a situation where one board member exerted undue influence over the others.

Despite Schneider’s denials, some are viewing Schneider’s resignation as necessary considering Tulane’s connection to Teach for America. Dr. Louella Givens Harding, who held the BESE District 2 seat before Orange Jones, feels Schneider should have recused himself from the debate regarding Orange Jones.

“It leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Givens Harding said. “The matter should be brought back to the ethics board for reconsideration.”

When asked if she would consider running again for the District 2 seat, Givens Harding said, “I won’t say never.”

Orange Jones feels the connections are informal and do not constitute a conflict of interest.

“Part of my role with Teach for America Greater New Orleans is to work in collaboration with others in our community invested in public education,” Orange Jones said. “There is no financial relationship between Teach for America and Tulane…There is no association between our organizations beyond shared professional interests.”

This article originally published in the August 5, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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