March 25, 2015 03:34 PM

Photos by Robin May

Northside High Principal Melinda Voorhies arrived Monday morning at the LPSS central office with her resignation letter in hand, and within minutes, LPSB member Tehmi Chassion's cell phone started ringing.

The central office that morning was like a ghost town, recalls Voorhies, as she went office to office in search of administrators she could deliver her resignation letter to. After dropping copies of the letter in the empty office chairs of Human Resources Director Bruce Leininger and interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeune, Voorhies tells The IND she finally found one central office administrative worker, who told Voorhies she wasn’t sure of the whereabouts of Leininger or LeJeune.

So Voorhies gave a copy of the letter to the central office worker as well, and then went out into the parking lot and got into her car, bringing an abrupt end to a nearly three-year effort that was just beginning to see positive results from all the major changes enacted under her watch at what has historically been (and continues to be) the school system’s poorest performing high school.

Melinda Voorhies spent the last three years fighting for lasting change as principal of Lafayette Parish’s most academically and economically challenged high school. On Monday, she was forced into submitting her resignation after a hard-fought battle against a behind-the-scenes force seemingly more concerned with who controls the school than anything else.

When Melinda Voorhies was pulled out of retirement three years ago to help in the efforts at turning Northside around, it was supposed to only be a temporary gig.

Voorhies — a former longtime high school basketball coach with a commanding voice and a no-nonsense approach to education — was recruited at the start of 2012 by the newly arrived superintendent, Pat Cooper, as part of his plan to resuscitate the long-neglected schools in the district, namely the ones where academic performance has a long history of mirroring the economic conditions of the area in which they’re located.

At the time of her arrival, Voorhies’ original agreement with Cooper was only for a 4.5-month stint as Northside’s interim principal, charged with not only bridging the ever-widening achievement gap that has long plagued the schools of Lafayette’s north side, but also with eradicating what at the time had become an out-of-control discipline issue (averaging a fight a day) and a learning environment that left many students feeling unsafe even within the school’s confines.

Within the first month of her arrival, Voorhies quickly brought the school’s discipline issues under control, and soon agreed to toss the short-term commitment in favor of becoming Northside’s permanent principal.

She then turned her focus toward changing what she calls the school’s “climate,” and with that she also introduced a never-before-seen excitement to Northside’s learning environment. Between classes, music started coming from the school’s PA system, playing appropriate songs based on student requests. She also staged surprise events for Northside’s student body, bringing in influential speakers like former LSU basketball coaching great Dale Brown as well as the authors of The New York Times bestselling character-building novel “The Pact,” written by three African-American doctors, who, like many of Northside’s students, had challenging upbringings.

Voorhies also made the book required reading not just for the school’s students, but her entire staff, everyone from teachers to janitors to cafeteria workers. And to combat Northside’s wretched graduation rates, Voorhies, in October 2012, staged a two-day photo shoot — which was also this reporter’s first experience with Voorhies and Northside — as a surprise for the close to 250 freshmen enrolled that year.

With each freshman decked out in his or her gown and robe, as if graduation day had come four years early, former IND staff writer Heather Miller and I took photos of each student. Those photos were posted along the walls inside the school. In the months after the freshman photo shoot, Voorhies commented on the experiment and its impact on students, telling The IND:

Some of them were saying they didn’t want to do it, but after they put it on and took their pictures they were like, "Wow." Kids told me it gave them chills and made them feel completely different. The attitude they walked up with was very different than when they walked away. It showed them what it’s going to feel like to graduate. If they think it, feel it and see it, they walk by and remember that they want to graduate.

Those freshmen from 2012 are still waiting on their official graduation day. We hope every one of them will graduate, even without Melinda Voorhies' incessant encouragement.

IMPROVEMENT TAKES TIME

In the more than two years that have since passed, Northside's graduation rate has begun to inch up ever-so-slightly, rising from 56 percent during the 2012-13 school year to finish the 2013-14 school year at 57 percent.

But with the rollout of the Louisiana Department of Education’s major changes in statewide testing and school accountability standards — substantially raising the bar on what's expected of the state's public schools — Northside was hit with a reduced score on its state-issued Report Card for the most recent school year, dropping from a D to an F grade. That drop, however, isn’t a sign that Northside is performing worse than it was, just that the state’s system for ranking schools changed, drastically, from how it was calculated in years past.

One notable difference is that although students can still receive a grade of “Fair,” that score is no longer factored into a school’s composite ranking by the state. For Northside, despite seeing a shift of students moving from a “Needs Improvement” to a “Fair” performance score during the 2013-14 school year, none of it counted in the formula used by the state in issuing Northside’s F letter grade.

Despite all of Northside's progress under Voorhies, it was that F grade from the state, coupled with the school board’s termination in November of Cooper (who backed Voorhies’ efforts 100 percent) that ultimately led to Monday’s resignation letter.

Two sources close to the situation tell The IND there had been tension between Voorhies and Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau for some time, and that following Cooper's termination, Voorhies knew the pressure was on to replace her as the school's principal. (The IND verified the claims of a strained relationship between Voorhies and Billeaudeau with Cooper, who says he had to act as their go-between.)

On Tuesday, The IND spoke at length with Voorhies, who says the chain-of-events that led to Monday’s resignation were put on the fast-track earlier this month when LPSS Academic Officer Virginia Rabalais received instructions from higher-ups to write up a discipline letter against Voorhies related to Northside's performance under her watch.

"On March 9, [Virginia] Rabalais told me that she'd been instructed to write the discipline letter on me," Voorhies tells The IND.

Voorhies says shortly after learning of the discipline letter, on March 16, she met with interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeuene, who denied any involvement with the Rabalais letter.

"At that meeting, I said, 'Well, you are probably aware that [Virginia] Rabalais is writing a discipline letter,' and I said what's going on?" recalls Voorhies. "Mr. LeJeune said he didn’t know about the discipline letter and that he didn’t give those instructions. He said that he felt those instructions probably must have come from Ms. Rabalais' immediate supervisor. So I said, 'Answer my question,' and he told me he'd asked Ms. Rabalais to gather data from before [former Northside Principal] Carlton Handy until now, look at the info and find out why we can't get Northside over the hump. And that’s when he addressed me in the third person saying, and I quote: ‘I’m not sure Melinda Voorhies is the right person to take Northside to the next level.’”

Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau

According to the school system's employment hierarchy, Virginia Rabalais' immediate supervisor is Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau.

The IND spoke Thursday morning with Billeaudeau, who denies she gave the order for Rabalais' investigation into Northside's data and also says she had nothing to do with Voorhies' departure.

"Really? Really? No sir, no sir. I wasn't even in town when it happened. I knew nothing about her departure until I got a phone call from [Tehmi Chassion]," says Billeaudeau, adding that the directive for Rabalais' investigation came straight from interim superintendent Burnell LeJeune. "This isn't the first time she resigned," notes Billeaudeau, referencing an episode in December 2012 when Voorhies briefly resigned over an issue she's still unwilling to talk about but likely resulted from her butting heads with board member Chassion (a conflict we'll go into in more detail later in this story).

"I'm not going to comment anymore on this silliness," says Billeaudeau.

Voorhies also included that third person quote from LeJeune about "Melinda Voorhies" not being the "right person to take Northside to the next level" in her resignation letter.

LeJeune, who spoke Thursday morning with The IND, says he was unaware of a discipline letter, but did confirm that he'd asked for information on the amount of resources allocated to the school, the progress made and the plans for moving forward. That, he tells The IND, is when he made the statement questioning whether she was the right fit for the school.

Yet, in an interview Monday with KATC, LeJeune downplays the comment, ultimately putting the decision to resign back on Voorhies, telling KATC, “She felt it was time to move forward, and as a school, and as a district, our commitment is to continue to move [N]orthside forward.”

Voorhies is adamant that Rabalais didn't mince words during their March 9 talk, and that her resignation 100 percent resulted from certain forces she describes as "politically-connected people ... intent on getting rid of me."

In that same report by KATC, the local TV station also talks with District 4 school board member Tehmi Chassion, who represents the area surrounding Northside, J.W. Faulk Elementary and Acadian Middle (all historically low-performing schools targeted for turnaround by Cooper):

“I think overall, it’s a sad day for Northside, and the Northside community,” Lafayette School Board member for District 4 Dr. Tehmi Chassion said. Chassion is concerned this resignation will delay Northside’s turnaround. “We were coming up with that plan, and to have the bombshell dropped on us this morning, we just have to wait and find out what’s going on,” Chassion said.

Chassion’s District 4 is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the parish. Its schools are among the lowest performing in the district. It has the highest rate of students — with minorities being the overwhelming majority — enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. And historically it’s been the district most overlooked by school officials and board members when it comes to allocating the school system’s money and resources.

That’s what ultimately makes the departure of Melinda Voorhies so difficult to swallow. She was part of the effort to enact real change at schools like Northside launched with the arrival in early 2012 of Cooper as the newest in a long line of Lafayette Parish School superintendents. One of Cooper's earliest efforts at changing the tide at Northside involved a complete overhaul of the school's faculty. That move is what sparked the first signs of resistance toward his superintendency due to the removal of many longtime and popular teachers from the school.

And Voorhies must have spit up her coffee upon reading the song and dance Chassion gave KATC. For the last 2.5 years, Chassion has been after Voorhies' job. The icy relationship between the two is largely the result of a master key to the school that Chassion had obtained prior to Voorhies taking over as principal in early 2012. Voorhies eventually caught on that Chassion had been staging after-hours pickup games and practices in the school’s basketball gym — without an insurance policy covering the numerous friends who benefited from the board member’s 24-hour access to the school’s facilities.

District 4 School Board member Tehmi Chassion

Voorhies had the locks changed, and this, as we’ve argued in our previous school system coverage (read more here), was the moment Chassion made his split from Cooper and Voorhies, and is the reason he’s largely stayed away from the campus over the last two years (and the only possible explanation for him consistently voting against Cooper's efforts to put more money and resources into District 4's schools).

“All that stuff in the news about Tehmi wanting to help, well, I can count on one hand the times he visited campus in my time,” Voorhies tells The IND. “The last time, was a PTO meeting in November, and before that, it was over a year, almost a year and a half. He doesn’t come on campus. And it's not like he wasn't invited. I've maintained an open invitation for people to come see what we're doing at the school, because I don't think you can really know or understand Northside until you're there at the school.”

That, however, wasn’t the case Monday morning. No more than 30 minutes had passed from the time Voorhies dropped off her resignation letter when a phone call reached Chassion, who’d just arrived for a pop-in visit at J.W. Faulk Elementary School, another perpetually low-performing school located in District 4’s boundaries.

“When he came to our school Monday morning, I was coming out from my office to meet him and he was on the phone with someone talking about whatever had just happened with Ms. Voorhies,” recalls the elementary school’s principal, Jamilah Hicks (another principal picked under Cooper's superintendency to help a District 4 school with a history of poor academic performance). “After [Chassion] got off the phone he said he’d like to visit the school but he had to go over to Northside and see about what was going on involving Ms. Voorhies.”

“About 30 minutes after I submit my resignation Tehmi arrives on campus,” says Voorhies, noting she received word of his surprise visit from the Northside staff. “From what I hear, he was there almost all day yesterday.”

According to a report received by The IND Tuesday and prepared by a Northside administrator documenting Monday’s chain of events, Chassion arrived on campus and signed in right after 9:40 a.m. According to the account, Chassion remained on campus well into the afternoon, speaking with at least 10 employees about Voorhies’ departure in which he's alleged to have made claims that with Voorhies gone, he was no longer banned from campus (he was never banned from campus) and that he would now be helping the school take back control.

“All that stuff in the news about Tehmi wanting to help, well, I can count on one hand the times he visited campus in my time” — Melinda Voorhies

According to two of the 10 members of the Northside faculty who reported having an interaction with Chassion Monday, the District 4 board member is also said to have made some pretty big claims: Namely that he’d already found someone to replace Voorhies as the school’s next principal, which would be a serious circumvention of state law and a likely violation of the ethics code since the hiring and firing of school system employees — a process redefined in Act 1 of the 2012 Legislature as part of an effort to stamp out corruption among the state's elected school board members — is the sole responsibility of the district's superintendent.

And Chassion's visit to Northside wouldn't be his last stop of the day. After leaving his alma mater without signing out on Monday, Chassion headed far outside his district for a surprise visit at Carencro Middle, which was documented in a complaint submitted to the central office Tuesday by the school’s principal Spurgeon Banyard.

Here's Banyard's complaint:

[Tehmi] Chassion came onto Carencro Middle grounds and requested from Mrs. Moten to tour the school. He also stated to her he didn’t deal with me and wanted to notify [administrators] of his presence. I believe his visit was to try to harrass, intimidate, antagonize, provoke me in some way.

I have an ongoing suit against Mr. Chassion due his ethics and unprofessionalism. I find it troublesome that he continues to use his seat on the LPSS board to continue in his efforts to harrass me. His presence on Carencro Middle campus is unwarranted and causes tension for my staff and myself. The present court proceedings are due to the same questionable “visits” that he has made which resulted in my claims. Mr. Chassion is not assigned to this district. ... He is aware that his presence is not wanted on Carencro Middle campus.

Like Voorhies, Banyard is another of the principals brought in by Cooper to help with the Turnaround Plan. And like Voorhies, Banyard has also seen big improvements in his time here. He’s also had to repeatedly butt heads with Chassion (read The Advocate's story about it here).

Carencro Middle School Principal Spurgeon Banyard

On Tuesday, interim Superintendent LeJeune confirmed Chassion's three school visits on Monday. As far as Chassion's alleged claim of already having Northside's next principal lined up, LeJeune says: "A board member doesn't make decisions on the personnel of a school; that's the responsibility of the superintendent."

For Voorhies, Monday marked the end of a 32-year run as an educator. But to those who knew and worked with her, she was way more than just that. Here’s a recollection from one Lafayette Parish educator who spoke on the condition of anonymity about what it was like working for Voorhies during her first two years as Northside’s principal:

Melinda had an amazing vision. She was a leader in every aspect of the word. It was also difficult. Melinda and her administrative team had this great vision, but it was also so hard to get through all the red tape and negativity that came with representing change. I felt that Melinda never had the full support she needed. And it was always a struggle. Not with Cooper. Cooper was behind her all the way. They represented agents of change, and that’s always scary to some people.

It was sad to see teachers and administrators and students alike working so hard only to be met with road blocks constantly. Funding for sure was a problem, but it was also the constant questioning of Melinda and her decisions, the micro-managing [by school board members]. But she had her heart in the right place and those who were aligned with her there understand that. I think it got to be too much. A lot of times, as you know, people need a scapegoat, and unfortunately it fell on her shoulders. She meant business and was very stern, and unfortunately some had personality issues that just couldn’t handle that.

And although Voorhies says she’s sad to go, she also feels she’s made the right decision.

“I think it’s the right thing for me to do,” she says. "I unequivocally think we were on the right track, making the progress we needed to make. I believe, as in basketball, that it takes a good three to five years to dramatically turn around a program like this. I think we’ve definitely made some dramatic advances in my 2.5 years, and given two more years, if we could’ve fixed this absence problem, I think we would have really seen that dramatic turnaround. Unfortunately, there’s people that wanted me gone. For those people, the people who wanted me fired and worked to get me fired, they can be satisfied; and for the people that wanted someone else as principal, they too can finally be satisfied.”


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