In what was likely the most tumultuous Orleans Parish School Board meeting held since the board’s contentious pre-Hurricane Katrina days, members Tuesday night stopped arguing among themselves and with some audience members long enough to raise the city’s property tax modestly and appoint its interim and deputy superintendents.

Undoubtedly, a major source of the turmoil was the unwavering antics of longtime gadfly Sandra Wheeler Hester, who was a key antagonist of the School Board pre-Katrina, and who has begun attending monthly meetings again. Hester and a group of four other henchwomen, which included Lower 9th Ward activist Vanessa Gueringer, talked above every speaker who addressed the board and interrupted board members repeatedly while they discussed and voted on issues. Hester filled out a comment card for every agenda item, as she’s been known to do, and used her time to personally berate board members and audience members who spoke out against her.

But in another explosive turn of events, the seven-member board broke into a shouting match over who should be the interim superintendent, and a quieter, but no less argumentative, disagreement on the appointment of the deputy superintendent of charter schools. A five-member majority voted to appoint Chief Financial Officer Stan Smith as superintendent. But members Ira Thomas and Cynthia Cade vehemently spoke out against Smith’s appointment, with Cade nominating 10 other people.

Among those she wanted for the spot: Executive Director of Human Resources Armand Devezin and Executive Director of Exceptional Children’s Services Rosalynne Dennis, both of whom Thomas said last week he’d nominate.

Cade and Thomas both said that Smith, while qualified to serve in a financial capacity, did not have the credentials to be superintendent. They also said that the board’s majority made the decision to appoint Smith behind closed doors, and they  denounced board President Thomas Robichaux’s decision to go public with his intent for Smith to take the position prior to the board meeting.

In the case of the deputy superintendent, Brett Bonin rejoined Cade and Thomas in what has become their traditional alliance to vote against the creation of the deputy superintendent of charter schools, the appointment of the district’s Executive Director of Charter Schools Kathleen Padian to the position, and to set Padian’s annual salary at $145,000.

Dissension among board members seemed to encourage Hester and a few like-minded audience members. After Thomas and Cade’s argument with other board members, Hester and her cohorts began insulting board members by using obscenities and personal attacks. The jeering continued after adjournment, as at least two of the five loudest audience members followed board members Lourdes Moran, Seth Bloom, and chief financial officer Smith out, screaming insults and expletives just steps away from them.

Vice-president Lourdes Moran, who has served on the board since 2005, said Tuesday’s meeting was the most disruptive she’s seen.

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “The worst part is that it goes against us because….people don’t want this type of performance, and the chances of us getting back our schools, they make that worse,” Moran said, gesturing towards the jeering audience members behind her after the meeting.

She said the board does have two security officers, but that “they just aren’t doing what we need them to be doing.”

Hester repeatedly scoffed at the board’s security force throughout the meeting, saying more than once that she dared anyone to remove her. She received her fair share of criticism from audience members and the board for her behavior.

It didn’t deter Hester, who’s come to be known as “18 Wheeler” by her critics and supporters. She kept talking over speakers.

And in the battle between School Board members over the appointment of the two positions, Cade took a page from Hester’s book as she talked over board president Thomas Robichaux, and told him he was out of order for refusing to consider the other 10 nominees for interim superintendent she proposed, and instead only voting on Smith’s appointment. Ignoring the president’s gavel banging, she and Thomas raised their voices in a heated dispute with Robichaux that culminated in Thomas walking out of the meeting, only to return minutes later.

“Stan Smith is not certified to be a superintendent,” Cade said to Robichaux. “If he can’t be a superintendent, he can’t be interim. He was hired to be a CFO.”

Cade, along with Thomas, said Robichaux shouldn’t have informed the media last week of his intent to place Smith in the position.

And when it came time to discuss Padian’s salary as deputy superintendent, Thomas alleged that the Orleans Parish School Board has systematically discriminated against its black employees by offering experienced black staffers less pay than white staffers with less experience. He then read aloud the salaries of the School Board’s executive staffers, comparing Padian and Smith’s proposed salaries and years of experience with that of those staffers. Both Cade and Thomas said the duties Padian would be performing as deputy superintendent were no different then the duties she’s performing as executive director.

Despite all this, the board managed to roll forward the millage, and get the two positions appointed. The tax rate for the board next year will be set at 45.31 mills, up from this year’s 43.6 mills. It means the board will take in an extra $5120 million, and have more to distribute to charter schools. Correction: The tax increase will raise just more than $5 million, not $120 million.

Several charter school leaders and proponents spoke out in support of the increase during the board’s hour-long public hearing, which was held prior to the meeting. Several other commenters spoke out against it, citing the School Board’s history of mismanagement of taxpayers’ dollars and clamoring for more accountability.

The board voted 5-2 in favor of the proposed millage increase, with Cade and Thomas opposed.

The increase brings the millage up to the total previously allowed by voters.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...