N.O. school board nears vote on superintendent _lowres

From left: Nolan Marshall, Stanley Smith, Ira Thomas

The Orleans Parish School Board could finally decide Tuesday who will serve as the board’s next superintendent, but it’s unclear whether any of the finalists will be able to collect the five-vote supermajority needed to win the job.

Three candidates spent extensive time with board members last week after an initial round of interviews, and a vote on the superintendent position is on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting.

But the seven-member panel that will have to make the decision is typically divided 4-3 on big votes, and a dispute over a school construction contract seems to have exacerbated tensions just as the date for a possible decision approached.

“I’m just hopeful there will be a vote and we’ll come up with a candidate who gets at least five,” board President Nolan Marshall Jr. said. “That’s what I’m praying for.”

The three finalists are Edmond Heatley, who served until recently as the top school official in the British territory of Bermuda; Veronica Conforme, the former chief operating officer for New York City public schools; and Kriner Cash, who was schools superintendent in Memphis, Tennessee.

As a group, the finalists have more extensive experience actually running big education bureaucracies than a previous slate of candidates vetted by the board earlier this year. Heatley, who also has served as an administrator in several California districts, is the only holdover from the initial slate of four.

If any of them can get five votes, it will mark a turning point for the board. Stan Smith, formerly the district’s chief financial officer, has been serving as interim superintendent for two years, stepping in after Darryl Kilbert resigned in 2012.

The extended search for a new leader has left the district in limbo, stuck with an uneasy status quo in which most New Orleans public schools are still governed by the state agency that took them over after Hurricane Katrina.

The School Board oversees a handful of traditional schools and more than a dozen independent charter schools. The state-run Recovery School District has more than 60 schools, all of which will be charters by the fall, and all of which could voluntarily switch to OPSB oversight once they start performing well enough academically.

Tuesday night’s meeting may at least provide the public with a first glimpse of where the board stands on the slate of candidates hoping to step into such a complicated picture.

So far, board members have been mum on their preferences, and the board’s agenda leaves room for more vetting if none of the candidates can win a supermajority. A proposed motion calls for “further consideration” of “up to two superintendency candidates.”

At the same time, board members have been trading accusations about a contract to put up a new building for Edna Karr High School, highlighting divisions that could make it even harder for competing factions on the board to reach a compromise.

The deal is potentially worth more than $50 million, and the local construction firm Woodward Design+Build initially entered the winning bid. But it came to light in the past few weeks that one of Woodward’s subcontractors, a company called Nolmar Construction, is run by relatives of Marshall, the board’s president.

In an interview last week, Ira Thomas, a board member who has clashed frequently with Marshall, said flatly, “This doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Marshall denies any attempt to steer the contract toward one firm or another, acknowledging that his half-siblings own Nolmar but claiming no involvement with, or knowledge of, the company’s bid.

“I don’t have anything to do with their business,” Marshall said, accusing Thomas of trying to embarrass him. “They are going to do what they need to do to obey the law. Period.”

Whatever the case, the school district notified Woodward earlier this month that Nolmar could not serve as a subcontractor because of the apparent conflict. And with Nolmar disqualified, Woodward’s bid slipped from first place, losing points because it no longer meets a district requirement to steer a certain portion of the spending to so-called disadvantaged business enterprises, which are typically companies owned by women or minorities.

Woodward is formally challenging the district’s decision, and the board will be discussing potential litigation from the company at its meeting Tuesday.