With a reputation for chewing up and spitting out superintendents almost as fast as it hires them, the Lafayette Parish School Board can't be surprised so few want the job.
So here it is: We told you so.
November’s firing of Superintendent Pat Cooper (who came to us with a track record for successfully bringing several minority school districts back from the brink of failure) is nothing new for our school system — it’s been the trend for decades and ultimately is the reason our world-class city is still plagued by a sub-par public education system.
Cooper’s tenure lasted less than three years, from January 2012 to November last year.
Looking back to his 26 predecessors, the short stint is nothing out of the ordinary. On average, two to six years is the going rate for Lafayette Parish superintendents, and in the school system’s 146-year history, only one has entered the realm of double digits: John Wesley Faulk, who was on the job from 1922 to 1942.
Typically, those initial views of the new super as some kind of educational messiah who’s come to wash away all the sins from decades worth of political graft and corruption and lack of focus on the kids most in need dissipates. Usually within the second or third year of his superintendency.
But according to scholarly studies of public school districts throughout the nation, we aren't that unique. In a 1997 study titled "The American School Superintendent Leading in an Age of Pressure," authors Gene Carter and William Cunningham write:
The school board purposefully hires a change-oriented superintendent to improve schools and prepare them for the 21st century. School employees tend to resist change. Community debate rages over the types of changes that should not occur. When the school board realizes the superintendent is unable to make changes without conflict, confusion, and hard feelings, the honeymoon is over. Board members who supported the superintendent are defeated. Discord intensifies as everyone spars with the superintendent. The superintendent is either chased off or fired. The schools return to the status quo and the act is then repeated with an even more skeptical cast for the new star to work with.
This is nearly identical to what Cooper went through in the last three years: a massive reorganization targeting the central office, maintenance department and one academically sub-par high school, which led to "hard feelings" as Carter and Cunningham describe above. Couple that with his six-year Turnaround Plan (which community leaders helped devise) to close the school system's long-standing achievement gap that never fully saw the light of day thanks to board member resistance from the get-go of his superintendency.
But Cooper was just one in a long line of our school system's superintendent casualties.
Let's take the superintendency of Michael Zolkoski that started in 1997. Praised upon his arrival, he was out by 2000. His lasting legacy for the school system: an over-the-top dress code crackdown that quickly prompted the ACLU’s condemnation for targeting the children of Rastafarians. He did construct five schools, but that did not go over well either.
Zolkoski’s method for building the new schools in less than three years was also the source of controversy with local developers over his bidding methods, which for the most part kept the projects out of local hands. The lightning-fast fashion in which the buildings were constructed, another of the former super’s directives, would arguably be the most lasting mark Zolkoski would leave on the school system — a result of his decision to cut costs and save time by using vinyl wall coverings on both the interior and exterior walls of the new schools. In recent years, when the five schools built during his tenure became plagued by mold and water intrusion issues, many pointed to Zolkoski’s cost-cutting measure as the likely culprit (read more on that here).
That's in addition to the fact that he built several of the schools without federal court authority, which was needed because the system was operating under a longstanding consent decree that required it to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to desegregate its schools.
After Zolkoski’s fall from grace, the school board turned to James Easton, a man described in news reports from the time as “a breath of fresh air when compared to his predecessor.” Compared to nearly all of his fellow superintendents (both before and after his tenure), Easton — the school system's first (and so far, only) African-American superintendent — would hang on longer than most. He also played a key role in major achievements for the school system, most notably attaining unitary status in 2006 in the federal government’s long-standing desegregation case.
But by that point, Easton was seeing the handwriting on the wall, thanks largely to his directive the year before calling for a major reorganization of the central office in an attempt to streamline the school system. That effort stepped on lots of political toes, and it would ultimately lead to Easton’s demise.
From a June 2007 article by The IND, reported on the verge of Easton’s ouster after a years-long battle with school board members (for clarity’s sake, the excerpt starts with a quote from then-board member Mike Hefner):
“There’s ways of going about doing this,” [Hefner] continues. “To me, I think they’re doing it in a way that maximizes humiliation to him. And I’m sorry, that just doesn’t give Lafayette Parish a very good name out there in the educational world.”Sound eerily familiar? The excerpted quote could be inserted into a countless number of articles detailing events from just four months ago with the firing of Superintendent Pat Cooper.
With the nationwide average tenure of superintendents only about three years, many recognize Easton’s six-year-plus tenure as an achievement in itself. “It’s a high stress job,” Hefner says. “Superintendents can get burnt out very quick. To last six years in a district says a lot.”
Hefner wonders how the school system’s recent treatment of Easton will affect the search for its next superintendent.
“How are you going to attract a good caliber superintendent when you’re playing these games?” he asks. “Removing the superintendent from the discussions on the board floor, threatening the superintendent if he doesn’t leave immediately ... constantly seizing on every problem in the school system so you can turn it around and blame it on him. I mean, who’s going to want to come and be in charge of a system like that?”
The state currently has 16 superintendent positions that have opened up this year, which puts a high premium on quality superintendents. “What is going to be available out there?” asks Hefner. “That’s a real concern. And I’ve been through five of these [superintendents]. It’s a very high-stress, very demanding time. You’re trying to make the best decisions for the school district and you just hope and pray that you make the right decision.”
Greg Davis: “The dispute was not in the best interest of the school system, the children in the classroom, nor the community,” he says. “And it needed to be resolved.” “They were asking, ‘What’s going on? What’s the problem?’ It was really making our city look bad.”
Like Easton, Cooper came into Lafayette Parish as the answer to our decades-old prayers for a state-of-the-art public education system. And like Easton, Cooper’s eventual fall from grace can be directly traced to his attempt at a massive reorganization.
Cooper, however, took it several steps further than Easton, calling for a reorganization of not just the central office, but also the entire maintenance program, followed shortly after by the entire staff of the struggling Northside High School in an effort to make it more academically successful.
Despite good intentions, it was that effort — not his stubborn decision to stand by the hiring of Thad Welch as some would argue — that fueled the board’s drive for his termination in November. (Burnell Lemoine, it's worth noting, may be the one exception to the rule, but unlike most of the past LPSS supers, he came from within the system and was largely beholden to the directives and wishes of the school board members.)
So here we are again, in search of another superintendent, or if tradition continues, another educational messiah to lead us out of this never-ending fight against an ever-present mediocrity.
Who in his right mind would want the job after seeing what Cooper just went through?
Granted, we have a new board now (only a handful of the old school anti-Cooper contingency remain, though their influence is still strong). And it's under the direction of Tommy Angelle — a veteran board member and anti-Cooperite who’s now serving as the board's president — that a new search is underway.
But with only a week or so left in the application period, only four applications have been submitted. Thanks to this report from The Advocate, we know two of the applicants, Don Aguillard (the superintendent of St. Mary Parish and a former Carencro High principal whose name has been tossed around during two of our previous super searches, including the one in 2011) and Francis Touchet Jr. (a former principal of Erath High in Vermilion Parish who now works for the Louisiana Department of Education).
For now, the identities of the other two applicants remains unknown, as the board recently opted to act on the advice of its legal counsel and take the superintendent search process in a different direction from previous years by keeping the names of the applicants sealed (from board members and the public) until after the March 27 deadline.
According to The Advocate, the sealed applications will then be opened privately by board President Tommy Angelle and Vice President Dawn Morris to be reviewed and turned over to the interim superintendent's office for vetting.
We're confident that this move toward the shadows and away from the public transparency experienced during the board's previous hiring processes (this was particularly the case in 2011) is in violation of Louisiana's Public Records Law. (This anti-Sunshine sentiment, it's worth noting, has become a recurring issue since late 2013 when the free legal counsel of the DA's office was abandoned by the board in favor of the private Baton Rouge law firm of Hammonds and Sills.)
Compared to the 2011 process that ended with Cooper’s hire, this go-round — at least so far — has also seen nowhere near the same level of interest. In 2011, the board had the pleasure of making its selection out of a pool of 26 applications from all over the country. Now, unless a swell of submissions comes in over the next week, our board will have 22 fewer candidates to consider as it makes what will no doubt be the biggest decision of its newly started term.
So what’s the deal?
In addition to our Cooper theory — that the really top-notch candidates take one look at the turmoil Cooper withstood at the hands of a power-hungry board over the last few years and quickly move on in their job search — another possible contributor to the lack of applications could be the other five parishes that were are also seeking new superintendents at the start of 2015, including the public school districts in East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Lincoln, Orleans and East Feliciana parishes.
While some of these searches have since ended, look at the number of applications submitted: 10 in East Baton Rouge Parish, six in Jefferson Parish, seven in Lincoln Parish, 90 in Orleans Parish and 12 in East Feliciana Parish. While we still have a week left to go before we’ll have a final tally, it’s a bit concerning to see we haven’t at least surpassed or are on par with some of these districts.
Who wouldn’t want to take over a school system in our fair parish? Someone with a computer, an understanding of Google, and a right mind?