This article, written by New Schools for New Orleans CEO Patrick Dobard, first appeared in Bill Rouselle’s Bright Moments newsletter. Below is an abbreviated version; you can read the full article on the Bright Moments blog.

15 years after Hurricane Katrina, mentioning the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans can bring forth a lot of memories, both good and bad. I led the district between 2012-2017. It was a challenging job, but I was grateful for the chance to serve the children, families, and educators of our community.

There is much, like the passing of the differentiated funding formula, or the improved academic outcomes in our city, that I am proud of during my time as the superintendent.

But I am also proud of an aspect of our work that’s less frequently discussed: the use of Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) to physically rebuild our schools. 

When I came into my role in 2012, we were faced not just with academic distress, but with the enormous task of repairing and rebuilding school sites that had been damaged during Hurricane Katrina. We had $1.8 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to use for school reconstruction, and we had to manage it well. We needed to pick great contractors to take on this enormous job. The project was personal for me. One of the high schools that needed to be rebuilt was Booker T. Washington (BTW), my father’s alma mater.

Many Black elected officials and influential stakeholders in New Orleans had long been pressing State Superintendent Paul Pastorek to use DBEs as part of school reconstruction in our city. This was a controversial request—a law instituted under Governor Mike Foster had long been interpreted to say that no state agency could have a DBE component in work contracts. Local leaders rightly wanted that changed. They wanted the RSD to set aside a percentage of business for companies owned by women and people of color.

When I became Superintendent, I got the chance to help make that a reality. 

Early on, I went to see former City Councilman Jim Singleton. He had been a champion of DBE while on the council and knew the power of having such a policy. I had known Councilman Singleton all my life; I knew him as my dad’s friend, Big Jim. When I shared with him that I wanted to see the DBE policy to fruition, he told me that if I was serious about it, he would help in any way he could — but I had to make sure to keep my promise.

When I left our meeting, something clicked for me. Councilman Singleton talked about how BTW trained many individuals, like my dad, to have businesses or occupations in fields like electrical engineering, architecture, and carpentry. That day, I thought back to when I was about ten years old. My dad landed a construction job at the then-Landmark Hotel in Metairie. He’d gotten the job through a friend, who was a subcontractor.

I knew the job was rare; it was difficult for Black contractors to get hired on projects like the one my father’s friend had gotten. But it meant my dad had steady work, and I seem to recall how food to feed seven kids and a wife got more solid during that time.

Now, I was determined to ensure that whether or not you “knew someone” would not determine if you would get in on a job. I knew, as Councilman Singleton did, that a transparent open bid process, with a goal of hiring a significant percentage of those that have been systemically disadvantaged, was the right way to go. So now, we had to figure out how to get the state law changed.

Luckily, New Orleans is a small city and a big extended family. The degrees of separation are small. I had been involved with the legislature for a few years and because of that, I knew Senator Karen Carter Peterson. She agreed that our DBE goal was critical and she was determined to help get it done. By chance, she reconnected me with a childhood friend of mine, Daniel Davillier, a lawyer who was an expert on the matter.

After looking into it carefully, Daniel concluded that the law was actually silent on this matter. It didn’t clearly say whether we could do a DBE program or not. He said that if we tried, we would probably get sued by contractors. And we might lose—so I had to decide if it was worth it.

I remember thinking, even if I lose my job over this, it’s worth it. I had a meeting with Daniel, State Superintendent John White, and the Deputy of Facilities for the RSD at the time, Lona Hankins. We all agreed it was worth the risk.

On June 25, 2012, in my first big policy move, we announced the RSD’s plan and had the full support of Senator Mary Landrieu, state Senator Karen Peterson, and a number of other local leaders. I almost immediately got a threatening email from some construction interest. But nothing ever came of it, and we proceeded with partners like the Urban League of New Orleans to create the RSD DBE program. We set a goal to have at least 25% of contracts be from DBEs.

It is one of my proudest moments at the RSD. From December 2012 to August 2020, RSD construction contracts totaled $4.3 billion; of that amount, DBE participation totaled $1.1 billion. These were actual dollars to sustain businesses that have not always had the same support and recognition as others. This inclusion represents countless families, much like my own. When Booker T. Washington was rebuilt, 34% of the contractors were DBEs, doing work valued at $19 million dollars. There were over 34 different DBE vendors on that job alone. I know that made the difference in so many lives. The food to feed their families got more solid.

This was a group effort between so many of us—from the activists and leaders that had long been calling for this, to our team, to the politicians that helped us out. I feel proud to have kept my promise to Councilman Singleton and the people of New Orleans. And I feel proud to have helped rebuild the building my father learned in with a diverse, efficient, and skilled group of contractors. Fifteen years since Katrina, we still have a lot of work to do. But we got this part right.

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