Ira Thomas, president of the Orleans Parish School Board, delivered an extraordinary, 23-minute speech attacking the board’s interim superintendent Friday, telling a room packed with supporters that Stan Smith may have committed “fraud, malfeasance and forgery” in office.
Thomas, who called for Smith’s ouster from his temporary post, presented no direct evidence that Smith had broken the law. Pressed for details, he emphasized that Smith only “may” have committed the alleged improprieties. And given that Thomas was only joined by two of his fellow board members at the news conference, there seems little chance that he could muster the votes to fire Smith, who has said he won’t resign.
But the speech threw into sharp relief a schism inside the School Board that has been growing for years, heightened by racial tensions and conflicting personalities.
The community groups that have been pushing for Smith to go, largely based on what they view as lackluster implementation of the district’s goals for awarding contracts to minority-owned businesses, took it as a vindication, cheering and whistling when Thomas had finally got through his litany of complaints and called for the superintendent’s resignation.
“The only thing Mr. Smith can offer our children, parents and community is his immediate — if not sooner — departure from the Orleans Parish School Board,” Thomas said, drawing long applause from a group of perhaps 30 or 40 people at the board’s conference room in a West Bank office building.
On the other hand, some argue the public acrimony that has marred board proceedings for more than a year could damage the image of a district that was only just beginning to shed a reputation for corruption and infighting, a perception that ultimately led to the controversial state takeover of most public schools in the city after Hurricane Katrina.
In an interview Friday, board member Sarah Usdin, who won her seat on the board last fall, said, “Before Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board had eight superintendents in 10 years,” for which “students and parents suffered. She added, “We don’t want to return to the days of revolving-door superintendents.”
Smith did not immediately return calls seeking comment Friday afternoon. But he has already rebuffed Thomas and Cynthia Cade, who asked for his resignation privately this month, and it does not appear that Thomas has the support he would need on the board to force Smith out.
Cade and fellow board member Leslie Ellison joined Thomas at the news conference. However, Nolan Marshall, a potential fourth vote who has been lobbied intensely by both sides behind the scenes, released a statement Friday condemning Thomas’ leadership on the board. In any case, firing Smith may require a five-person super majority, although Thomas disputes that because Smith is an interim superintendent.
“What we have with the current leadership on the board is one controversy after another,” Marshall said in his statement. Marshall did not refer to either Thomas or Smith by name, but appeared to reject the idea of firing Smith. “I am asked to vacate my principles and convictions to support that leadership without any dialogue as to the expected outcomes for students or benefits for the district,” he said.
Smith, who has been leading the district since former Superintendent Darryl Kilbert stepped down last summer, has said he has no interest in taking on the job permanently. He served under Kilbert as chief financial officer and his background is in accounting, not education.At 67, he is old enough to retire.
Still, Thomas argued that keeping Smith at his post until the board can find a permanent replacement would leave the district “in limbo.”
“We have been told by experts that it may take as long as six months to a year for that to happen,” Thomas said. He did not specify a candidate to take over, but asserted the district needs “a leader in place and we need that leader now.”
He faulted Smith for getting the district involved in a new common enrollment system with the state-run Recovery School District despite complaints about the so-called OneApp “that are too long to list.” He said that Smith kept the head of the district’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program from attending project management meetings, making it difficult to ensure that contractors are hiring enough minority-owned businesses to do construction work. And he said that Smith botched construction projects involving Audubon Charter School and McDonogh 35 High School, causing lengthy delays.
Perhaps most seriously, Thomas alleged that Smith entered into an “illegal” contract with the board’s last president, Thomas Robichaux, who pushed successfully to make Smith interim superintendent last year. As he has argued in the past, Thomas said the board voted to hire Smith but never voted on the specifics of his contract, which was drawn up only later.
In signing the contract without explicit board approval, Thomas said, Smith “may have committed fraud, malfeasance, forgery, falsification of documents and a breach of fiduciary trust as the interim superintendent.”
In an interview, Robichaux, who lost a re-election bid last year, called the allegations “ridiculous.” He said he consulted board attorney Ed Morris before having Smith sign his contract last year and that Morris told him the board was not required to take any further action in order to install Smith.
Morris could not immediately be reached for comment.