May 19, 2017 08:17 AM

LSMSA alumni are fighting bid to rename their school after one of its founders

Sen. Francis Thompson's attempt to rename the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts after one of the school's founders has drawn the opposition of the school's 4,500-member alumni association.

Jamie G. Smith, a Gonzales-based spine therapist, says members of the LSMSA Alumni Association oppose Thompson's bid to rename the school after the late Jimmy D. Long, Sr., by a wide margin. Smith is president of the association and cites a poll conducted of its members to back his claim.

Smith is a member of LSMSA's fourth graduating class (1988). His wife graduated in that class. Smith says their oldest daughter graduated from there in 2015 and their youngest daughter just completed her sophomore year there.

"I turned to some members of the association who have some expertise in polling and opinion research," Smith tells The Independent. "They developed a survey that we distributed to our members, as well as other friends of the school. Even though I personally oppose the renaming of the school, I committed up front to advocate for whatever the poll results found our members' position to be."

The survey was sent to more than 4,600 LSMSA stakeholders by email; 1,940 people responded.

"I'm told that a 17 to 18 percent response to a survey like this is considered pretty good," Smith continues. "Our survey drew a 42 percent response rate."

The bulk of the respondents were alumni (1,350). The rest were current students (240) and an amalgam of employees, board members and family members of current or former students (350).

"The survey found that 74 percent opposed the renaming of the school after Jimmy D. Long, Sr.," Smith says, adding "that the opposition is not confined to geography."

Smith says more than 60 pages of comments were included in the responses to the survey. He says some of those who support the name change said they did so because they assumed there was some sort of endowment that would accompany the renaming. Smith says there is no financing connected to the renaming.

"We have graduates in every parish of this state," according to Smith. "And we found that the opposition to the move is strong across the state."

Smith makes clear that he and the alumni association "have the utmost respect for Mr. Long." He does feel that Thompson and Jimmy Long's brother Sen. Gerald Long have not been honest with the school's board or its broader community.

"In December, the board voted to name the new dorm that will be built starting this year after Jimmy D. Long, Sr.," Smith says, noting that it marked the first time that a building on the school's Natchitoches campus had been named after any individual.

"Our school has four founding fathers," Smith says. "Mr. Long is clearly one of them. He came up with the idea and wrote the enabling legislation. But it could not have happened without the active help of the other founders — Gov. Dave Treen, Sen. Don Kelly and Dr. Robert Alost."

Alost was dean of Northwestern State University's College of Education at the time. He took a year's leave from the university to help launch the school. Long had approached Treen about funding for the school. And Sen. Kelly handled the enabling legislation in the state Senate. The school opened in 1983.

"The school named an auditorium in the main building after Gov. Treen," Smith says. "And it is now known to all students and alumni as the Treen Auditorium. We think that naming the new dorm after Rep. Long is a high and appropriate way of honoring his memory."

Smith says naming the dormitory after Long requires legislative approval and that's what the alumni and the school's governing board apparently thought they were getting when Sen. Gerald Long told the board in December that he would ask Sen. Thompson to handle the legislation that would (according to the minutes of that meeting) "honor Rep. Long's legacy."

Smith says he and other alumni were stunned when they read Thompson's SB1 when it was pre-filed in February.

"We thought that surely there had been a mistake," Smith recalls. "But, we were told by Sens. Thompson and Long that there had been no mistake, that renaming the school was their intention all along."

When the Senate Education Committee considered SB1 on May 15, Smith says 38 alumni association members submitted red cards in opposition to the name change. Some testified. Thompson spoke in support of his bill, which sailed through the committee.

On May 17, days after most of the Senate had attended the funeral of Sen. Gerald Long's wife, Rose, the Senate voted to approve SB1 by a 31-2 margin.

The bill has been sent to the House. The expectation is that the bill will be assigned to the House Education Committee chaired by Rep. Nancy Landry. Under House rules, the bill must be read by title three times while the House is in session. That would mean that Wednesday would be the final day of readings. That is also the regular meeting day of the education committee. Unless the rules are suspended, that would mean that the earliest SB1 could be considered by Landry's committee would be May 31.

SB1 is in a race against the clock.

Smith says the LSMSA Alumni Association is going to concentrate its efforts in and on the House Education Committee.

"If we can defeat it there, the bill will be dead," Smith explains.

Smith believes that it's right that defending the school falls to its alumni.

"Administrators come and go, legislators, board members, faculty — all come and go," Smith explains. "But we will always be the alumni. And it falls to us to protect our school and its legacy."

Sponsored by