Cover Story

Life Lesson

by Nathan Stubbs

After the death of his friend and political adversary David Thibodaux, Superintendent James Easton faces a difficult crossroads.

It's Friday, March 23, a typical morning for Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent James Easton. He arrives at his office around 8:30 a.m., in his standard dark navy slacks, white oxford shirt, and a red and blue striped tie. His assistant, Melva Perry ' a petite woman in a suit who answers the flurry of morning calls with the calm greeting of "superintendent's office" ' runs through the day's schedule.

Around 10:30 a.m., Easton moves into the adjoining conference room and closes the door behind him. It doesn't take long before the conversation turns to the new school board ' a group that has been openly hostile toward Easton. In January, in one of its first acts of business, the board adopted a new policy stating Easton has 72 hours to respond to all information requests by the board. A month later, they passed a motion removing Easton from his seat at the center of the board's meeting desk and relegating him to a foldout table across the room. His most outspoken board critic is David Thibodaux.

Easton leans back in his chair, steeples his hands, and ponders his relationship with Thibodaux.

"We'd have these debates," Easton says. "When I first came here, I enjoyed this." The pair routinely met in Easton's office on Friday afternoons to discuss the issues facing the Lafayette Parish School System. A slight grin spreads across his face as he reminisces. "Back and forth, back and forth. Arguments," he says, gesturing with his hands. "Next time I'd see him, we'd be OK. We'd be in there for two hours sometimes. And I'd tell him how crazy he was, and he'd tell me how crazy I was."

The arguments didn't always remain friendly chats behind closed doors. Over the past few years, Easton and Thibodaux's feuds on everything from a parking lot makeover at Plantation Elementary to major debates on school performance numbers and the importance of small class sizes became more acrimonious and more public, with the two men challenging each other in letters to the editor and guest editorials. Recently, Thibodaux openly called for Easton's removal as superintendent.

These exchanges, along with numerous others, may be running through Easton's mind as his eyes wander and he looks at the wall.

"Have Dr. Thibodaux and I always not gotten along?" he asks. "No, we differ. We have fundamental disagreements. Not about everything," he emphasizes. "[But] of course we disagree. It's public knowledge that, he and I, we're on different sides of the street. And I do tease him sometimes, I tell him, 'My side of the street is the right side of the street.'"

As if on cue, Melva knocks on the door. "David called," she says. "He says he'll be here in about five minutes."

David Thibodaux?

"Sure," Easton says, matter-of-factly. "He's coming to see me â?¦ Coming to see me," he repeats.


"Oh, I don't know, we just probably need to talk," he says. "Probably need to talk."

When pressed, Easton admits the meeting is anything but typical. It's been approximately two years since he and Thibodaux have had a real one-on-one meeting with each other. "This'll be the first time in a long while," Easton says.

"I've talked to him on the telephone," he continues. "It's not that there's been an absence of any communication, but there hasn't been a regular kind of ongoing communication."

Shifting in his chair, Easton assesses the standoff. "Let me be very fair here," he says. "Part of the issue of communication, part of it is probably on me." Easton feels that some of their meeting discussions were later mischaracterized by Thibodaux. As a result, in recent years, Easton made sure someone else was present whenever he had to meet with Thibodaux. "And that's where we are," Easton says.

But today will be more like old times, and Easton's encouraged.

"We're just going to be the two of us today," he says. "And I want it to work and if it works, it works."

Another knock from Melva. "David's here."

Thibodaux is standing by the doorway wearing a windbreaker, a black motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm. Missing is his brown shoulder strap briefcase that Thibodaux typically carries with him on official school business.

"Hey Jim," Thibodaux says.

"Your ears must be burning up," Easton announces. "We've been talking about you."

The two men shake hands, and Easton walks over and leans in the doorway leading to his office. He tells Thibodaux that he's been discussing their old Friday meetings. "You know, how we used to do?" Easton appeals.

"And now you won't even hardly see me," Thibodaux says with a laugh. He motions to the door with his helmet. "You ready?" he asks.

The two walk through Easton's office and out a small back door that leads to a side parking lot. The sun's shining, and there's a breeze in the air. When they hit the end of the sidewalk, Thibodaux's black Honda cruiser is parked right next to Easton's grey 1985 Cadillac.

"I got room for you," Thibodaux says, trying to prod Easton into riding on the back of his bike.

"No, no. No you don't," Easton replies and waves Thibodaux over to the spacious sedan.

In a phone interview around 3 p.m. that afternoon, Thibodaux recalls his lunch meeting with Easton. They drove out to Sicily's in the Albertsons shopping center in Broussard.

"It was fun," Thibodaux says. "You know, it's the first time we've done anything like that in a very long time, which is unfortunate."

"So we talked about a lot of stuff," he continues. "Things that have happened in the past where he and I fundamentally disagreed. We covered a lot of ground. There were some specific things that he and I had some disagreements about, some public statements that he has made to which I have taken serious exception."

Thibodaux was particularly offended by comments Easton made about him occasionally misrepresenting facts about the school system. "I'm not going to say something unless I have documentation to support what I'm saying," he says. "I don't make this stuff up."

Easton, on the other hand, took issue with Thibodaux's constant pessimism over the direction of the school system ' telling him that it's counterproductive to be negative about the school system.

"I said, 'Jim, I'll stop being negative when I have a reason,'" Thibodaux recalls. "You know, I'm not going to be positive about bad stuff. To me, at some point [being positive] deteriorates into deception. Because when the news is bad, I think people have a right to know it."

After clearing the air about the past, Thibodaux says they also discussed future business of the school system. In particular, Thibodaux wanted to discuss an initiative of his to revamp upcoming budget workshops ' where board members would be able to vote on items as they came up instead of relying more on staff recommendations.

"He didn't object to that," Thibodaux says. "So, let's see how it goes."

Thibodaux also reflected on the status of the school district and on Easton's rocky relationship with the new school board.

"I think the [district performance] numbers speak for themselves," he says. "It's time for a change. And the change is that new board. I've also said from the beginning, if Jim wants to be a part of that change, it's OK with me. But he needs to become an agent for change and not an apologist for the status quo. Because sometimes emphasizing the positive is that: an apologist for the status quo. And I have no patience with that."

It wasn't that long ago that Easton represented a break from the status quo. In 2001, when he first took over the district following the departure of former Superintendent Michael Zolkoski, Easton was hailed for making an open door policy and community outreach a priority.

Thibodaux played a key role in Easton's hiring. At the time, Easton was the school system's third choice, and when the top two candidates opted out, many board members wanted to re-advertise for the position. It was Thibodaux who pushed for following through with Easton. Thibodaux was also at the helm as board president when Easton got his first raise and contract extension in 2003.

Things started to get rocky between the two around 2005, when Easton began pushing a major reorganization of central office staff.

"In my opinion Jim's demeanor and his behavior changed after he had been here a couple of years," Thibodaux says. "The whole focus was on this reorganization."

Easton streamlined more staff directly under him. Critics like Thibodaux contend the result has been more bureaucracy and a decline in interdepartmental communication.

The two also clashed over the school system's efforts to win unitary status in its 31-year-old desegregation order. While both supported the district's Schools of Choice program, Thibodaux rallied against some of the accompanying closures of failing schools. When Vermilion Elementary closed, he and fellow board member Rickey Hardy marched with a sign that read, "Don't trust the school board."

Thibodaux's mantra of late has been to be wary of the superintendent. But recognizing that he and Easton are communicating again, he expresses some hope that their differences are reconcilable.

"I think the situation has reached a point where it's pretty bad," Thibodaux says. "But I don't think it's irreversible. That would take a major commitment on [Easton's] part. To me, the ball's really in his court. I think this board is going to do what it has to do. It's going to do its job, which is to evaluate him objectively based on evidence of every aspect of the operation. If there are problems, we need to be honest about it with him and with the public. And we need to say: where do you want to take this district and how do you want to get us there?"

Six days later, Easton is staring out the window of his conference room, trying to remember the spot at Vermilionville where he once watched Thibodaux sing with a choir.

"I liked that," he says. "David was a musician. He was an entertainer. David was filled with a lot of laughter," he adds. "He had a good, quick sense of humor. You know, I could joke with him in ways that I couldn't joke with other people."

Easton has been reading a lot in the newspapers about Thibodaux's legacy. "To me the word that comes to mind is persistence," he says. "And I don't say that in a negative sense. I'm just saying if he's got his hand on something, his hand's going to remain on it. That's just the way he was. David was always going to be there. If he's got something on his mind, he's going to be there."

Easton had been out of the office sick through Wednesday and didn't attend Thibodaux's funeral. "I went to the wake," he says. "It's a personal preference. You will rarely ever find me at a funeral. I prefer not to go to funerals."

At Thibodaux's funeral, his lifelong friend Alfred Boustany gave the eulogy. Boustany said that while Thibodaux was often "the lone wolf" on the school board, it was never personal. "David never said a bad word about a critic," Boustany noted. "He criticized ideas. He loved a debate."

Easton shares that sentiment. Now he's adjusting to a work environment that feels too quiet. He checks his schedule with Melva. The day has been full of staff meetings, including one with embattled grants administrator Amy Trahan ' whose job he is defending against a majority of the school board.

Easton hasn't talked to any of the board members since Thibodaux's passing. The board is expected to appoint Thibodaux's successor this week. The appointed member will serve until a special election can be held, likely in September.

Easton picks up a folder on his desk, but his thoughts drift. "We had kind of a strange relationship," he says. "I wish [David] were here today so we could argue or whatever. I wish he were here. I don't regret that we had disagreements. I don't regret that our disagreements were public. It served a cause."

The 72-year-old Easton says he's been in Lafayette longer than the average tenure of public school system superintendents ' something he says may be working against him. "I've had to tell too many people no," he says.

He's under contract through 2009, but Easton says moving forward with the new school board is going to be more difficult for him without Thibodaux. He says his relationship with Thibodaux was often misrepresented, which could exacerbate issues with a board looking to be more involved with day-to-day administrative duties that are currently Easton's responsibility.

He looks down and rubs his hand across his creased forehead, looking uncertain.

"Life will be different for us, and I think in order for us to be able to serve our public at a high level we're going to have to come together or quite frankly, we'll have to change superintendents," Easton says. "All this kind of squabbling all the time and petty arguing, it's not fair to the public."

Easton surveys the mountain of paperwork on his desk. "You know, there's a very serious aspect of life," he says. "It's not all about standardized test taking, grades, performance scores. Sometimes you get caught up in this," he says, picking up a file. "In the finality, isn't it really about the quality of interpersonal relationships? There's so much that we take for granted. We tend to think that tomorrow's promised. And it's not."