Analysis: Corruption, Again, At The Orleans School Board
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When Ira Thomas was serving on the school board in New Orleans, he made it clear he wanted the board back in charge of public education in the city.
"It's time now, in my opinion for the Recovery School District to exit the city of New Orleans," he told the online news organization The Lens last fall, referring to the state agency that oversees most New Orleans public schools.
Now, Thomas has exited the school board. He abruptly resigned on March 6 — from the board and from his post as police chief at Southern University at New Orleans — after U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite announced a criminal charge against him involving a school system janitorial contract.
On Thursday, he is set to change his not guilty plea in the case that can only help proponents of leaving the RSD in charge.
Corruption was one of the reasons that, even before Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, a slow state takeover of public education had begun in New Orleans. Control of a few underperforming schools had been seized by the state. And a New York firm was put in charge of the Orleans Parish School System's finances months before the storm struck. That arrangement had been guided by state education officials over the objections of some local elected board members who said such an action violated the trust of the voters.
But, it turned out voters' trust was already being abused.
There were federal indictments, plea deals, convictions — roughly two dozen cases over the years. They involved teachers, teacher aides, school secretaries, contractors and the politically connected all the way up to a school board president, Ellenese Brooks-Sims, who pleaded guilty in 2007 in a bribery case.
Amounts of graft varied.
For example, a teacher pleaded guilty in 2006 to having altered payroll reports in a scheme that netted around $2,600 before she got caught. In 2004 and early 2005, a teacher's aide and an accountant pleaded guilty in a scam involving fraudulent travel reimbursements and stipend payments that drained some $70,000.
Brooks-Sims' case involved some $140,000 in bribes, prosecutors said. That case also nabbed a school board contractor who admitted helping Brooks-Simms cash part of the bribe money, and the late Mose Jefferson, a member of the famously fallen political family headed by convicted former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.
Although the prosecutions were going on for years after the storm struck, most of the corruption reached back to the pre-Katrina days.
After the storm, the state took over all but a handful of schools and now keeps tabs on them as they are operated by independent charter organizations. It's an arrangement hailed nationwide as a great experiment — one that proponents of local control keep stressing was supposed to be temporary.
As of now, there appears to be relative little inclination on the part of charter-run schools or the state to change the current arrangement where the Louisiana Recovery School District oversees around 60 charters and the local School Board oversees close to two dozen, running some directly and chartering others.
The board hasn't helped its own cause. Its membership has changed over the years but some of the contentiousness that marked years' past remains. The board deadlocked for more than two years over naming the latest superintendent. And its latest deadlock came last week on the matter of naming a temporary replacement for Thomas pending a fall election.
The federal investigation that led to charges against Thomas, who is accused of taking a $5,000 payoff, may result in other people getting nabbed in an unsettling reminder of the bad old days. Polite has said the investigation is ongoing.
Thomas — who, with his lawyer, has declined public comment — was charged in a bill of information and later formally waived his right to have a grand jury weigh the evidence against him. Such actions typically mean a defendant is cooperating with prosecutors.
– by AP Reporter Kevin McGill