Week in Review: How have the City Council’s utility consultants kept their contracts for so long?

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Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

Council utility consultants responding to questions from the City Council at a Feb. 21, 2019 meeting.

In 1985, New Orleans residents decided that New Orleans Public Service Inc. — now called Entergy New Orleans — should be regulated by the City Council rather than the state’s Public Service Commission, which had overseen the utility for the three previous years. Ever since, the council has relied almost entirely on a group of outside consultants to fulfill that authority.

Council members have come and gone over the past 30 years, but that group of consultants has remained remarkably consistent. The council’s primary legal adviser — Washington D.C. attorney Clinton Vince of the law firm Dentons — has advised council members on utility matters since 1983. So had the lead technical adviser, Joseph Vumbaco, until he passed away in 2018. His Denver-based firm, Legend Consulting Group, still holds the contract. Walter Wilkerson served as the Council’s local legal consultant from 1987 until he also passed away in 2018. Wilkerson’s firm still has the contract.

Those contracts are far and away the most lucrative awarded by the council, adding up to nearly $7 million a year. Most of those costs are paid by Entergy, but they’re ultimately passed on to ratepayers through their utility bills. Some observers question how such a prized gig could remain locked down by the same people and firms for so long.

“No one has a government contract for life,” said Monique Harden of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “These advisers have somehow managed a way to do that. And I believe it’s fueled by the way in which they give to political organizations and people running for office.”

New Orleans 7th grader’s lead test results prompt district to speed up filter installation at French Quarter school

Results from an off-the-shelf lead test performed by a seventh grader at a Homer A. Plessy Community School fountain have prompted the Orleans Parish school district to move up the timetable on installing water filters at the French Quarter school by several months.

Thirteen-year-old Bernard Voss-Potts, who goes by “Berr,” tested the water at his elementary school on Thursday as part of a student NPR podcast challenge.

“I’m doing a podcast on the lead in schools and I thought it’d be cool to test the water here,” he said in an interview Friday as he stood in front of drinking fountains covered with plastic to keep students from drinking the water.

Orleans school district continuing to look into Kennedy grade changes

The Orleans Parish school district is continuing to look into a former administrator’s allegation that Kennedy High School employees improperly inflated students’ grades, despite previously finding that “the school did not act in an improper manner.”

On Thursday, district spokeswoman Ambria Washington confirmed the ongoing inquiry in an email to The Lens.

“Due to recent information that has come to light after our initial investigation, OPSB is continuing to look into the matter and is in regular communication with the New Beginnings School Foundation,” Washington wrote.

Behind The Lens episode 25: Little red marks

This week on Behind The Lens, the Orleans Parish school district says it’s continuing to look into a former administrator’s allegation that Kennedy High School employees improperly inflated students’ grades. Previously, the district told The Lens that “the school did not act in an improper manner.” We reported last week that a former administrator alleges that school employees changed some students’ final letter grades from F’s to D’s and D’s to C’s in an attempt to give students credits they didn’t earn. We spoke with Marta Jewson about her investigation.

The Lens is continuing its investigation of the controversial wastewater assimilation technique. It’s the process by which local authorities discharge some or all of their treated wastewater into wetland sites. We hear from a proponent, LSU emeritus professor John Day, who founded a commercial firm that develops and monitors assimilation systems, as well as Ed Bodker, a retired state environmental manager, who has criticized the technique.

Also this week: New Orleans City Council members have come and gone over the past three decades. But the consultants who help them regulate Entergy New Orleans have remained pretty consistent over that period. And they’ve earned millions of dollars each year. Michael Isaac Stein has details in an exclusive investigation for The Lens.

Parent says Bricolage Academy’s new aftercare policies exclude special education students

A Bricolage Academy parent delivered an impassioned plea for greater special education oversight and services to the charter school’s board of directors at their monthly meeting on Tuesday night.

Roby Chavez, the father of two boys at the Mid-City charter school, said his two kindergarteners have autism and one also has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD. Both have Individual Education Plans, a contract between parents and a school that acts as an educational roadmap for school employees, required by federal law.

Chavez told board members he has heard multiple school staff say, “I can no longer provide for your child.”

“You can imagine how that felt to us, especially since no member of the leadership team who is present spoke up to correct those teachers,” he said Tuesday night. “We are pretty sure just saying that is illegal.”

New report says New Orleans eviction rate is nearly double national average

A new report by the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative found that 5.2 percent of New Orleans renter households were subjected to court-mandated evictions in recent years. That’s nearly twice the national average — 2.8 percent.

The report was a collaboration between Jane Place and Davida Finger, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. It’s based on court records from eviction cases in the First and Second City Courts from 2015 to mid-2018.

While the overall reported rate of evictions in New Orleans was high, the analysis also found that evictions were concentrated in certain neighborhoods. Specifically, they were densely located in low-income, majority black areas of the city.

Opinion: Student testing for the 21st century: finding alternatives to forced choice

Op-ed columnist Folwell Dunbar:

“Tests that use forced-choice questions are easy to create and easy to grade. Using various programs (there are several for creating crossword puzzles by the way), teachers can generate a test with a simple keystroke; and they can process test results for an entire classroom in a matter of minutes. For this reason, they are understandably popular – and, for this reason, companies like Scantron have turned little bubbles into BIG dollars.

“As an experiment in college, I once gave the same essay to two professors in the same discipline. One gave me an A-plus and the other gave me a C-minus. It made me question the validity of the assignment – not to mention, the high cost of my tuition. This is rarely the case with forced choice. For accuracy, measuring what you set out to measure, and for reliability, getting consistent results, forced choice scores high.”

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