Filed Under:  Education

Orleans Parish School Board meeting meets with resistance

31st March 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

The issues of economic development and securing contracts for disadvantaged businesses continue to embroil discussions at the Orleans Parish School Board, which met March 18 for an up or down vote on awarding a contract for professional services and to authorize implementation of a cooperative endeavor agreement between the School Board and the Recovery School District. Both issues garnered stiff resistance throughout the meeting from local activists pushing the board to award more business to Black entrepreneurs in New Orleans.

An email blast prior to the meeting from a group known as Justice and Beyond New Orleans blasted the meeting as an opportunity to “give RSD and charter schools the rest of the store.” Pat Bryant, co-moderator of the organization, chided the board for drafting a cooperative endeavor agreement with RSD that fails to mention “protections for disadvantaged business people; no equalization of salaries for charter CEOs and OPSB principals; services that could be jointly contracted such as transportation; due process for teachers and staff; and student rights and responsibilities.”

The agreement provides a framework for the two school systems to share resources and facilities and the creation of a joint accounting system by May 1, 2014. Dana Peterson, who is the deputy superintendent of external affairs for RSD, called the measure “a good first step in working together” and suggested successful implementation of the agreement could lead to other partnerships. Several others who attended the meeting also backed the cooperative endeavor agreement, including Janet Howard, the president and CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research, who called the plan a chance for “fairness among the use of funds” and an opportunity to “direct common resources to common needs” shared by both RSD and OPSB.

Bryant, however, honed in on the greater parity in use of funds under the agreement and questioned whether OPSB administrators will experience an increase in salaries on par with their RSD counterparts or if salaries will be capped for charter school leaders benefiting from public funds. “There’s no accountability or transparency in this system,” Bryant said, adding, “and we are giving them more and more of our tax dollars and this agreement does nothing to address that.”

Board members Ira Thomas and Cynthia Cade expressed skepticism about the need to enact an agreement ahead of the arrival of a new superintendent to operate New Orleans Public Schools. The board is engaged in a search process and announced the selection earlier this month of four finalists, including two local candidates in businessman D’Juan Hernandez, a member of the board of directors for the Algiers Charter School Association and Kyle Wedberg, an acolyte of former RSD superintendent Paul Vallas and currently the head of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Thomas and Cade cast the only votes against implementing the agreement.

The School Board also took up the issue of awarding a short-lived professional services contract until March 31. A handful of firms competed for the $200,000 project to manage construction projects and deliver other services, with bidding expected to reopen April 1 for another three-year contract. Jacobs/CSRS, after several assessments of the bidders’ strengths and weaknesses, was recommended to continue serving the School Board in its management capacity until the end of March.

Bryant criticized the recommendation to maintain Jacobs/­CSRS as a service provider given past performance issues and in light of what he called qualified minority contractors willing to do the work. “One of the largest contracts to Jacobs/CSRS is likely to be renewed despite two competitor firms that are DBE that are less expensive and will provide twice as many contracts to other DBE firms,” Bryant wrote in an email encouraging residents to attend the board meeting. Bryant, and others who attended the meeting with him, took particular issue with board president Nolan Marshall’s support for the contract extension. Bryant wrote: “The contract manages OPSB FEMA construction contracts. Nolan Marshall has given lip service to DBEs, but has consistently voted to gut disadvantaged business rules that enable blacks and other minorities to compete for contracts.

Bryant, at the meeting, spoke directly to Marshall to encourage a change of course before voting on the measure and to deliver a less-than-subtle message about the board president’s political future. “I get tired of saying the same thing. You always seem to have four votes to do the wrong thing. Nolan, if you go through with this,” Bryant said, “this will be another time you have slapped Black businesses in the face. I want you to know that Black businessmen are watching.” The board voted unanimously to approve extending the management contract with Jacobs/CSRS.

Patrick Aliu, president and CEO of PSA Constructors, Inc., also bid to obtain the management contract. PSA Constructors is a Dallas-based, minority-owned firm working to expand its operations in New Orleans. “I was surprised by the unanimous vote,” Aliu said. “Here you have a qualified, but small, minority firm that was rated second to Jacobs in the review process and we were still not selected. I thought that given the make-up of the board that we would have a good chance particularly given our track record and Jacobs’ inability to keep project managers.”

Aliu said his firm is undeterred by the board’s decision and will return to make future bids. “Our company invests in every community that we are in through scholarship programs and other projects. We want to be a part of helping to send children to school in New Orleans and to help minorities succeed. I don’t operate under a win-lose philosophy. We have been around a long time, so if Jacobs wins something it doesn’t mean that we lose anything. We’ll be back, that’s all.”

Adonis Woods, a construction manager for Vanir Construction Management, asked the board to reconsider its recommendation of Jacobs in light of his firm’s high marks in the review process. “I think that until we change the perceptions of those in power about who they want to do business with, then we will continue to face challenges with adding more women- and minority-owned firms to the economic development process,” Woods said. “But I don’t know how to do that.”

This article originally published in the March 31, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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