After a heated discussion, the Orleans Parish School Board delayed Tuesday night a decision on modifications to its disadvantaged business enterprise program.

The program is intended to help socially or economically disadvantaged businesses to compete in, and obtain, contracts with the School Board. The City of New Orleans has a similar program, as does the Louis Armstrong International Airport.

The proposed policy change makes the language more specific, setting the School Board’s goal at up to 35 percent of its contracts awarded to these businesses. It’s that specificity that worried some School Board members and at least one audience member.

State public bid laws prohibit agencies from having a preference for one contractor over another, meaning that a goal such as this could leave the board open to lawsuits. The wording of this policy has been debated in committee meetings for months, with board members and board attorneys trying to agree on language that’s iron-clad against challenges.

Bill Aaron, the board’s legal consultant, said the language they’ve got is safe.

“We took great care to put in the ‘up to 35 percent’ and the ‘goal,’ ” rather than a 35 percent requirement, Aaron said. That language, plus the fact that the policy is race and gender neutral, should be enough to withstand any lawsuit the board would face, he said.

The policy is actually not only race and gender neutral, but takes pains to ban discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, religion, and a host of other qualifiers. Still, board President Thomas Robichaux and vice president Lourdes Moran were cautious Tuesday.

“We need to understand the policy completely so we can address the issues,” Moran said.

Board members Ira Thomas and Cynthia Cade both said that Moran was being redundant in expressing her concerns.

“Mr. Aaron was at the committee meeting. Ms. Moran was there,” Thomas said. “And he spoke to these issues. And he was brought in as an expert to speak to these issues at her request. This is foolishness.”

Cade, too, said she couldn’t understand what additions to the policy were being sought by Moran, who made a motion to defer the approval.

Board member Brett Bonin supported approving the policy language. Board members Woody Koppel and Seth Bloom joined Moran and Robichaux in voting to defer.

Many audience members, including Norman Roussell from the city’s Office of Supplier Diversity, which runs the city’s disadvantaged business enterprise program, encouraged the board to sign off on the policy changes. Roussell said that it’s likely that the School Board will face legal challenges, adding that the city office often faces some of its own.

“We will provide you guys with policies, programs, forms…anything we can do to help, we’ll do,” Roussell said.

Several contractors spoke in support of the measure, including Randy Smith of the Royal Consultants Group. Smith called the program and its city counterpart “a hand up, not a hand out” for disadvantaged businesses.

Others in attendance, such as Pearlina Thomas of the Louisiana Associated General Contractors, said that a policy is needed but agreed with the majority of the School Board’s decision to tweak the wording before approving.

In other business, the board approved a resolution to work with the Recovery School District to create a parishwide single-application enrollment process. No details on how such a plan would work were released, but the board has made it clear that it wants to manage the process, not just be a part of it.

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...