Hoping to clear himself of allegations that he tried to steer work to his half-siblings, Orleans Parish School Board President Nolan Marshall Jr. has asked U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite to investigate his relatives’ involvement in seeking a contract to build a new high school for the school district.
Marshall read from a letter to Polite at the start of a particularly strained board meeting Tuesday, saying it was important for residents to feel confident that board members are “beyond reproach in fulfilling their duties.”
Board members were scheduled to vote on whether to hire one of three — cut at the last minute to two — finalists to serve as the district’s next permanent superintendent, but instead deferred any action on the matter until further notice, signaling an impasse with no clear resolution in sight for a sharply divided panel.
Instead of the search for a new leader, controversy over the construction deal dominated Tuesday’s meeting. Pat Bryant, one of a handful of vocal activists in attendance, led what he called at one point a “citizens filibuster,” rising to speak before each of more than a dozen unrelated votes — even one on a policy related to breast-feeding — and then deftly steering his remarks back to the questionable contract.
The board’s general counsel, Ed Morris, repeatedly cut the microphone on public speakers as they veered off topic, and a security guard escorted several of them from the room.
The board itself split along its usual dividing line. Leslie Ellison, who tends to vote with a three-member minority on the board, spoke after Marshall, condemning not only the involvement of Marshall’s relatives with the construction contract but also what she called a “direct assault” on the district’s so-called disadvantaged business enterprises program, which aims to steer contract spending to firms owned by women and minorities .
A company owned by Marshall’s half-siblings, Nolmar Construction, would have served as a subcontractor to Woodward Design+Build, which came close to winning a contract to build the new Edna Karr High School. As a black-owned firm, Nolmar initially helped put Woodward in line to get the contract.
But Ellison pointed out that Woodward, which is not registered as a disadvantaged business, or DBE, owns a 49 percent stake in Nolmar. “In essence,” Ellison said, Woodward would have been both “the prime contractor and the DBE on Edna Karr High School.”
Marshall has denied having any knowledge of Nolmar’s bid or its operations in general. In a recent interview, he agreed that it would probably violate state law for his siblings to be involved in the project, and said he had told them as much.
The dispute highlighted how difficult it may be to reach a consensus on a new superintendent for the district, which has been led on an interim basis for the past two years by its former chief financial officer, Stan Smith.
Marshall can usually count on three other board members — Woody Kopplin, Sarah Usdin and Seth Bloom — to vote with him, but it takes five votes to select a superintendent, meaning a candidate would need to peel off at least one more vote from the board’s other faction, which includes Ira Thomas and Cynthia Cade along with Ellison.
The board’s infighting, a consistent feature of public meetings over the past few years, appears to have discouraged interest in the superintendent’s job, which would be a complicated one to begin with.
Most of the district’s schools are independent charters, and the state-run Recovery School District still governs the bulk of public schools in New Orleans, charter or otherwise, just as it has since shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
Two candidates on the short list remained in contention for the job on Tuesday after a third hopeful, a former New York City public schools official named Veronica Conforme, dropped out just a few hours before the board was scheduled to vote. Conforme was appointed to lead Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, a state entity that runs a collection of low-performing schools in Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Still in the running were Edmond Heatley, who served until recently as the top school official in the British territory of Bermuda, and Kriner Cash, a former superintendent of schools in Memphis, Tennessee.
All three finalists spent hours being vetted by board members last week after an initial round of interviews.