Board balks on contracts

Some question employment of top N.O. school officials

During a nearly four-hour meeting late Tuesday, the Orleans Parish School Board discussed but did not nullify the employment contracts of interim Superintendent Stan Smith and Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools Kathleen Padian.

The action item referring to Smith’s contract left the door open for negotiation while for Padian’s contract, the recommendation was simply to nullify.

The board agreed to review Smith’s contract and bring it back for ratification. After returning from a lengthy executive session, the motion to nullify Padian’s contract “died for lack of a motion.”

Pertaining to both contracts, the agenda stated that “terms and conditions of the existing employment contract were not authorized by the Board at its regular meeting of May 15, 2012.”

Of Smith’s contract, Board President Ira Thomas said, “All we are doing here is correcting an error.”

Thomas and board General Counsel Edward Morris said Tuesday that the terms of Smith’s contract were not discussed at the May meeting. Thomas called Padian’s contract “illegal.”

In May, both Thomas and Cynthia Cade, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, said that Smith was qualified as chief financial officer, (his position at the time), but not qualified to be superintendent. Cade and Thomas also voted against the creation of the deputy superintendent of charter schools position, the appointment of Padian, and Padian’s annual salary of $145,000 in May.

Padian said Tuesday it was more of a title change from her previous role as executive director of charter schools than it was the creation of a new position. The board voted unanimously to approve her contract for the executive director position in December 2011.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, former board member Thomas Robichaux, who was president at the time the contracts were approved in May, said there was nothing wrong with the contracts.

“There is nothing about either contract that I believe is improper in any way either in the way they were approved, negotiated, or signed,” Robichaux in a telephone interview.

For Morris “to say they are illegal is absurd since he approved it on the front end,” Robichaux said. “I think this is evidence that Ira Thomas is unduly interfering with the staff.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, board member Seth Bloom questioned why the contracts made it through the initial legal review if they were not in fact legal.

Morris confirmed that the contracts went through the typical process, including the legal review.

Board member Sarah Usdin asked if nullification was the only option.

Bloom offered a substitute motion for the president and vice-president to review the contracts and identify the errors, then bring the contract before the board for ratification.

The board approved Bloom’s motion. Thomas abstained from the vote.

Before voting on the nullification of Padian’s contract, the board members went into executive session because of “potential litigation,” according to the agenda.

An audience member and a reporter questioned the legality of the executive session in that there wasn’t actually any litigation or threat of litigation.

The board members left the meeting room, then quickly returned, and voted to go into executive session. Usdin abstained from that vote.

While the board was in executive session, Padian said she was not notified of the action item in advance, had not hired an attorney and had not threatened litigation.

Once the item appeared on the agenda Monday evening, Padian said, she received numerous calls from people who were surprised as well as people who praised her. Padian said she did not know why the board was attempting to nullify her contract.

Before the discussion of the superintendent’s contracts, the board discussed the absence of an action item involving the final approval for leveraging federal tax credits, a vote that was expected on Tuesday’s agenda.

Despite numerous pleas from the public and board members to add the motion — already approved once by the board in November — Thomas gave the single “nay” for the proposed addition of the vote needed to move forward to secure between $1.6 million and $2 million in federal tax credits for construction of the new Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School, which has been under way for several months.

Before the meeting, board member Woody Koppel pointed out the omission.

“It should have been on the agenda,” Koppel said in a telephone interview. “There shouldn’t be opposition; it should be a win-win.”

Koppel cited the need for the extra funding to complete the Schools Master Plan, and said that through the tax credit mechanism, over time the strategy would provide an additional $80 million in funding. Koppel also attended the meeting.

All board members present, with the exception of Thomas, voted to add the tax credits motion to the agenda. However a unanimous vote was required for passage.

Thomas said that he thought it was unclear why the OPSB would have to come up with $22 million in matching money to receive the tax credits.

Speaking before and during the meeting, Koppel said not approving the tax credits by March 1 would have “grave consequences,” not just for the Wheatley project but also for the entire district.

“The stakes are extremely high and time is of the essence,” Koppel said. “People in the investment community are watching,” he said.

Paul Flower, president of Woodward Build + Design and a volunteer consultant on the master plan, was one of the speakers urging Thomas to put the approval on the agenda. He said that the goal of the master plan was to make sure all students had a seat in a quality facility by 2016.

“If we don’t get this, we won’t get enough money to build all the schools,” Flower said. For investors, “If we don’t show these people that we can close on this, they are going to take the allocations somewhere else.” Flower asked that the board “continue on the path that everyone has previously agreed to.”

Koppel said in terms of the partnership with the Recovery School District, “It’s not about you get this and we get this—it’s about the best interest of the community,” .

Usdin requested a special emergency meeting on the issue and submitted a letter signed by three board members supporting the request. She said that, “We need all the resources we can get—it doesn’t matter whether it’s OPSB or Recovery School District.”