Company chosen to find superintendent source of debate
More than a year after Darryl Kilbert stepped down as superintendent, the Orleans Parish School Board decided Tuesday night on a search firm to look for the district’s next permanent leader. But it was not immediately clear whether the chosen firm will take the job as offered.
The board’s vote for an Illinois-based company called Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates came after more than an hour of public comment and debate, nearly all of it centered on the extent to which the three finalist firms were prepared to meet the district’s goals for hiring so-called disadvantaged business enterprises, typically local companies owned by women or minorities.
HYA did not promise any DBE participation whatever, whereas the other two finalists said they could meet or exceed the district’s 35 percent goal.
Even so, Nolan Marshall Jr., who has spent much of his time on the board trying to strike bargains between two competing factions, said he was the most impressed by HYA’s proposal. He suggested a compromise: hire HYA and pay for a local firm to serve as a partner.
Marshall’s motion passed 4 to 3, with the board split along its typical dividing line — but not before President Ira Thomas called the idea “asinine,” suggesting that a forced partnership would only complicate and potentially delay a process that’s been going on now for months.
Then after the vote, the Rev. Dwight Webster, pastor of Christian Unity Baptist Church and a member of the committee that selected the three finalists, stood up and told the board that HYA has explicitly ruled out working with a local partner, leaving the issue in confusion.
There was no representative of the company at the meeting able to comment.
In sum, the board meeting left uncertain the status of what is widely considered the board’s top priority. Now more than eight years after Hurricane Katrina, the board’s place in the future of the city’s educational landscape is still up in the air. The Recovery School District, a state-run agency that took over most schools after the storm, still runs most of the system, and local education activists of all stripes are looking to the board’s next superintendent to help sort out what happens next.
As with many issues the board has tackled over the past few months, the issues of race and the participation of local companies in district contracts divided members of the board and public.
Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting criticized the district for setting up a vetting process — each board member chose one member of a committee that evaluated 11 candidates based on an 18-point scale —that would allow a firm without DBE participation to become a finalist.
“If I want to get an A on the test and I keep on getting Bs, I need to look at my process,” former board president Torin Sanders said.
Thomas raised the same objection in a sometimes tense exchange with the head of the selection committee, Westley Bayas, a local organizer with the group Stand for Children. Thomas noted that HYA ranked as the committee’s No. 2 choice despite the lack of DBE participation.
“I’ve got a problem with that,” he said. “We want to be in compliance with our own policy.”
Bayas acknowledged the DBE shortfall but pointed out that the board gave him an 18-point metric, with DBE participation weighted equally with other priorities. And he pointed out that the committee gave the board two other choices that did meet the DBE goal.
“We feel that no matter who you pick you’re going to have a solid search,” Bayas said, adding, “Not only a good process, but an expedited one as well.”
Marshall got to a four-person majority for his compromise proposal by winning votes from board members Sarah Usdin, Woody Koppel and Seth Bloom. Thomas, Leslie Ellison and Cynthia Cade voted no.
“We want local participation, I understand that,” Marshall said. “We want DBE participation, I understand that. But I don’t want to kick out what I consider the group that gave the very best interview.”
Cade objected that the board is spending enough on a search firm without having to hire two.
Thomas put it more bluntly: “It’s nonsensical, it’s ludicrous and just crazy.”
After Webster, the committee member, told the board that HYA has said it won’t work with a local partner, Marshall appeared ready to introduce another motion.
But Thomas, seeming exasperated, declared that the vote was over and that the board had to move on.