April 21, 2015 09:43 AM

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect corrected information from Interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeune about the school system's process for hiring new principals. According to LeJeune, the decision process does not include members of the school board, but rather a five-member committee is created by both the superintendent and the Human Resources department consisting of central office administrators (usually with diverse educational backgrounds) and the academic officer assigned to the zone of the school in question. The final decision ultimately rests with the superintendent.]

It seemed like Northside High had finally attained the necessary stability so vital to its long-awaited turnaround; then suddenly it all came to a screeching halt last month as behind-the-scenes players once again put personal aspirations for power and control of the school before the academic interests of its students.

Over the course of recent years, this power struggle was seen in the bewildering resistance by District 4's school board rep, Tehmi Chassion, to allocate more funding and resources to raise the bar and bring Northside up to the same level as the district’s other high schools, the ones located in the more economically prosperous areas of Lafayette Parish.
Melinda Voorhies was brought out of retirement in 2012 to help in the turnaround of Northside High. She was forced to resign as the school's principal last month.

As a proven tactic that’s worked again and again for schools in “at-risk” or low-income areas throughout the nation, the resistance to injecting Northside — as well as the other struggling schools located in District 4 like J.W. Faulk and Acadian Middle — with more funding and teachers is confounding.

While the overwhelming majority may see this issue as a no-brainer — take the money and see if what the research says is true — understanding the objections to recent efforts focusing on the historically overlooked schools of Lafayette Parish largely requires a psychological understanding of those leading the resistance. And that psychology is captured perfectly in this comment made recently by Chassion (who’s been District 4’s school board representative almost five years now) to a Lafayette Parish parent and local school system advocate. Here’s Chassion:

Perception is everything. If I can change perception, I can change minds.

Chassion’s statement to that parent is a direct reflection of the short-lived tenure of our last superintendent, Pat Cooper, who led the controversial push for a philosophical rebirth of how we approach public education in Lafayette Parish by putting the focus on the school system’s less advantaged students.

Yet, by changing perceptions, Chassion was pivotal in engineering the mutiny that brought that superintendency to an end last November, and for the recent departure of Northside's last principal, Melinda Voorhies — a longtime coach who came out of retirement to change the school’s “climate” and fight for the academic success of its students. The school’s state-issued letter grade recently dropped from a D to an F — the result of sweeping changes in the state’s scoring process — giving a false indication that the high school was worse for wear during her two years, when, in fact, her efforts just needed more time. (Read more about Voorhies’ tenure at the school and why she left here.)

“We have to tear down this wall of division in this community, but we won’t be able to all get around the table as long as people are having private meetings and going behind closed doors to discuss public matters." — District 4 education advocate Erica Williams

With Voorhies gone, Northside has once again returned to a state of flux and uncertainty for its students and staff. And all of this turmoil within the local education system and its particular impact on District 4 has sparked a nascent wave of anger that is said to be spreading among the residents of the Northside community, according to local education advocates from within the district like Erica Williams.

Williams ran an impressive campaign last fall against Chassion for the District 4 seat on the school board, promising to turn the focus away from personal interests and return it to the students. Despite her strong message and a wealth of knowledge on the issues surrounding education in at-risk communities, Williams was defeated in November's election, thanks in large part to Chassion's direct ties with a well-oiled and time-tested political machine that has exerted its dominating influence on the district for decades (read that story here).

November's defeat, however, hasn’t stopped Williams from fighting for the students of District 4. And as the District 4 community comes together now in hopes of finding the right replacement for Northside’s recently departed principal, Williams is leading the charge against the personal motives and behind-the-scenes politicking that has for so long been an impediment to the academic turnaround of the schools in District 4.

And despite being the one responsible for erecting most of the roadblocks to the recovery of the long-struggling schools of District 4 over the last three years, Chassion, by changing perceptions and minds, has skillfully cloaked himself in the disguise of a good guy who really has Northside’s best interests at heart. However, a much different story emerges on paper, one in which Chassion is a good guy only on the surface. For starters, check out the school board's voting record over the last three years; the examples of Chassion voting against the allocation of additional funds and resources for District 4's schools are plentiful.

For Chassion, the job opening at Northside High is an opportunity for a power grab, and he intends to seize it.

With the school system currently being manned by an interim superintendent — a nice guy who’s on the verge of retirement and understandably not looking for controversy — veteran board members like Chassion are in a better position to exercise some control over our school system. And contrary to state law, Chassion has taken it upon himself to single-handedly decide what’s best for Northside and who should take the helm as its next principal — regardless of what everyone else, including his constituents and the faculty and students at Northside, wants.

Tehmi Chassion
This isn’t just speculation. Despite being skilled in the art of public perception, Chassion has one undeniable weakness: a big mouth that can't resist talking, especially about himself and his supposed lone fight to save Northside and the other schools of the district. (A good example of Chassion's loose lips came on the day of Melinda Voorhies' resignation, when the board member showed up at the school for the first time in over a year and told close to a dozen faculty members that they shouldn't worry, that he already had a replacement lined up for the job.)

Last Wednesday night, an unofficial and private meeting with school system officials was held immediately following the school board’s regular meeting. The purpose of this private meeting: to update Northside parents on the process to replace Melinda Voorhies. Three finalists were named for the job during the information session, including Northside’s current assistant principal and one of the school’s former principals who held the job in an interim role and was widely unpopular with students and faculty when she departed after six months on the job.

Mary Zeno
That former interim principal is Mary Zeno (currently assistant principal at Lafayette High), and according to several sources, if Chassion has any say, she’ll be selected as Melinda Voorhies' successor at Northside when the final decision is made Tuesday (today) afternoon following classes.

But according to a source present during last week’s private meeting, Chassion’s push for Zeno was hit with an unexpected curve ball when a Northside parent publicly warned school board members that if Zeno gets the job, they can expect an immediate walkout by more than half of Northside’s faculty.

You read that right, if that parent is accurate (and we're told she is): Some 50 percent of the teachers at Northside are so adamantly against having Zeno as their principal again (she also taught at Northside prior to the stint as interim principal) that they're willing to immediately walk off the job the moment she's hired. That's a serious threat and one that shouldn't be taken lightly by Chassion or his fellow board members.

“Rumor has it that he promised this position to her; that's what he's been going around telling people in the community,” says a source from District 4 who spoke with The Independent on the condition of anonymity. “And there’s a scheduled walk-out if that position is filled by this lady of about half of the staff. They’re just waiting now to find out what happens Tuesday."

A voice message left for Zeno at Lafayette High Tuesday morning was not immediately returned.

And Chassion’s alleged job promises don’t end with Zeno. According to our sources from District 4, the board member also has someone lined up for the school’s assistant principal’s job, which, it’s worth noting, isn’t vacant (we'll have more on that story later).

While Chassion’s intentions for Northside have largely been spread through his private discussions with constituents, his views are not shared by all elected representatives from the district. We reached out to District 4’s representative on the City-Parish Council, Kenneth Boudreaux, whose children attend the school.

Boudreaux says he wishes the hiring process wouldn't have been so rushed, and that it would have been advertised in more places than just the Lafayette Parish School System's website. Boudreaux says he also believes a male administrator would be the best fit for the job. Of the three finalists, one candidate meets that description: Mikall Stall, a teacher at Comeaux High School.

Boudreaux says his hope is Northside's next principal will be someone committed to staying for the long haul. Stability, coupled with the necessary funding and resources, says Boudreaux, are the key elements to ensuring Northside's academic turnaround.

A final decision on who becomes Northside’s next principal is expected to follow a question-and-answer session beginning about 2:45 p.m. with the school’s faculty; this is customary when the school system hires a new principal.

And several questions linger going into Tuesday's decision: Will Zeno come out of the process as Northside’s new principal? Or will Chassion see the light and get behind the wishes of the school’s students and teachers? Or if Chassion fails to have that come-to-Jesus moment and get behind the will of his constituents, will the news of Zeno’s hire end with Northside’s faculty making good on its threatened walkout?

“We have to tear down this wall of division in this community, but we won’t be able to all get around the table as long as people are having private meetings and going behind closed doors to discuss public matters,” says District 4 education advocate Erica Williams. “And he won’t be given free reign in this community any longer. Because what this community wants is to find the best candidate for the job, someone who’s committed to the students and to staying the long haul.”

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