A judge ruled Wednesday that Orleans Parish School Board staff members acted within their rights when they tossed out a construction bid from a company with ties to the board’s president.
The contract up for grabs — to build a new Edna Karr High School — has erupted as the latest controversy for a sorely divided board.
Woodward Design+Build came close to winning the contract earlier this year, but it was dropped from consideration when it became clear that one of its subcontractors, Nolmar Construction, is run by relatives of Board President Nolan Marshall Jr.
The bid also raised objections from board members who saw it as dodging the board’s requirement that a certain portion of contract spending go to minority-owned firms and other so-called “disadvantaged business enterprises,” or DBEs. Nolmar is a registered DBE, but 49 percent of the company is owned by Woodward, which is not.
Lawyers for Woodward and Nolmar made an unsuccessful attempt Wednesday to argue that the School Board should not have been able to disqualify them from getting the contract.
Under state law, they said, the board’s evaluation committee should have considered only whether Nolmar qualified as a DBE and was receiving the required percentage of the contract, regardless of any ownership stake by Woodward.
Deciding to dock the company’s proposal after the evaluation committee had scored the competing bids — as district officials did after discovering the extent of Woodward’s stake — could only “interject politics” into the process, said Christopher LeMieux, a lawyer for the companies.
Addressing the potential conflict of interest raised by Marshall’s position on the board, LeMieux said state law provides an exemption in cases where a contract is awarded through a competitive bidding process.
Daniel Lund, an attorney for the district, offered an opposite interpretation of the law. He said the board was perfectly free to amend its scoring of the bids based on new information, and he argued that Nolmar would not be able to participate in the contract at all because of state ethics laws barring nepotism.
Civil District Court Judge Lloyd Medley did not say on which of these considerations his decision hinged, but simply denied Woodward’s request for an immediate injunction that would have stopped the School Board from awarding the job to another contractor.
The judge’s decision may at least keep the controversy over Nolmar’s involvement from ballooning any further. The board is slated to hand out the contract within a matter of days, so any appeal by Woodward may be limited to going after lost profits rather than winning the contract itself.
In an interview, Woodward CEO Paul Flower said he hadn’t spoken with his lawyers yet about the ruling. But he said he was frustrated by some of the criticism aimed at his company over the bid, and he said he should at least have been given the opportunity to find an alternative DBE.
Flower said Woodward ended up with its stake in Nolmar — founded by Marshall’s father and now run by his stepsiblings — after working with the company on rebuilding the C.J. Peete public housing complex.
Nolmar, acting as a subcontractor, owed its vendors some $200,000 at the end of the project, Flower said, and rather than leave the company in the hole, Woodward paid the vendors off and took a stake in the company in return.
“I really feel like I did what was in the spirit of helping disadvantaged businesses,” Flower said. “And I feel like at the end of the day, we’re getting unfairly criticized for it.”
Clearly one faction on the School Board sees things very differently. During a heated meeting last month, board member Leslie Ellison said the arrangement “challenges the integrity of the district’s bidding process.”
She called it a “direct assault on our DBE program,” and added, “Above all, it hurts our children and the families we serve.”