Cover Story

Most Important Election. Ever.

by Patrick Flanagan

The fate of our highly qualified superintendent and his ambitious turnaround plan hang in the balance on Nov. 4. We have to get this right.

[Editor's note: Since this story went to press, new developments have emerged in the school board's attempt to terminate Superintendent Pat Cooper, and a special meeting is slated for Wednesday in which the board will likely vote to move forward with termination proceedings. Likewise, a request was submitted in federal court Tuesday calling for an expedited hearing in the lawsuit from Cajundome Director Greg Davis. The lawsuit calls for the disqualification of board members Tehmi Chassion and Mark Allen Babineaux from voting on any matters related to Cooper's termination, citing a history of bias by both board members toward the superintendent.]

From Left: Erick Knezek, Jeremy Hidalgo, Kathleen Schott Espinoza, Justin Centanni, Simon Mahan, Mary Morrison, Brian West, Erica Williams

The fate of our highly qualified superintendent and his ambitious turnaround plan hang in the balance on Nov. 4. We have to get this right.

By Patrick Flanagan / Photos by Robin May

It wasn't that long ago when Lafayette Parish realized its children deserved better, that our mid-ranked public education system - one that served a portion of the student population very well (we do a great job educating students whose parents are actively involved in their education) but wasn't doing near enough to close the achievement gap - would no longer be acceptable.

And so the community came together and a promise was made to turn the Lafayette Parish School System around.

Such an endeavor, however, would require a leader - someone with vision, a plan and enough experience to make it all happen. Deciding who that would be fell on the shoulders of the school board, and in late 2011, with a large community backing, the board decided to go with a veteran administrator highly regarded for his success closing achievement gaps in high-poverty school districts. In a 5-4 vote, the board made Pat Cooper Lafayette Parish's new superintendent.

And the community cheered.

With Cooper came the "100% In, 100% Out" Turnaround Plan, and with it, Lafayette Parish got the vision it needed, a man and a plan that believed in the potential for all students to learn. Education in Lafayette Parish was to be something bigger and broader, incorporating technology and a new focus on health and wellness, while also getting involved earlier in children's development process.

Two years ago, the Turnaround Plan brought with it excitement, and a hope was shared throughout the community for the future of education in Lafayette Parish. But it wouldn't be long before all the sweeping changes called for in the Plan began to rub some members of the school board the wrong way, as one of the plan's components involved a reorganization of the system, which immediately targeted employees not doing the jobs for which they were hired. And within two years, two of the board members who helped bring Cooper to Lafayette would eventually go from being his supporters to his opposition, putting the Plan in limbo, as a new majority on the board bonded in a mutual dislike of Cooper and launched an effort to impede the plan.

Fast-forward to the present.

As this issue of IND Monthly goes to press on Aug. 29, we are less than 24 hours removed from the latest embarrassing (yet unfortunately not surprising) development for our public schools: the presentation of a damning investigative report of Cooper by an outside attorney hired by the school board. Little is likely to result in September from the report, which accuses Cooper of myriad and highly questionable violations of state law and board policy. But it is clear the majority on the board that has laid mines in our school system's path for nearly two years is intent on canning Cooper as a final gesture of vanity - and it's galling that half of them, because they're not seeking re-election, would be long gone when the Turnaround Plan's limbs are blown off by the mines they've buried.

A week before this indignity, Cooper stood before a crowd of more than 750 packed inside the Cajundome for IND Media/ABiz's annual Top 50 Private Companies luncheon. Given an opportunity to address the crowd before the keynote speech, Cooper took the mic and said what so many in the audience were thinking: If Lafayette is serious about fixing its public education system and saving the Turnaround Plan, it's going to require six new school board members: One each to replace Mark Allen Babineaux, Tommy Angelle, Tehmi Chassion, Greg Awbrey, Hunter Beasley and Rae Trahan. If that doesn't happen, Lafayette can kiss the Turnaround Plan and our chance of becoming an A-rated school system goodbye.

A testament to Cooper's Aug. 20 declaration would come three days later, with the close of election qualifying and the sign-up of 20 candidates seeking seats on the school board. For the first time in a very long time, all nine of the school board's seats will be contested - a sure sign public sentiment has soured after enduring the last two years of turmoil caused by the six school board members Cooper referenced in his Aug. 20 address.

That turmoil has ultimately led to the Turnaround Plan being put on the back burner as the six board members have waged a calculated power struggle with Cooper, leaving the educational needs of the students hanging in the balance and the community looking toward Nov. 4's election day.

Of all the elections taking place Nov. 4, this year's school board races are the most important, and will ultimately give direction to a school system that currently sits at a crossroads.

With three of the board's six troublemakers declining to seek re-election, this election will boil down to separating the candidates who support the Turnaround Plan from those who don't.

Nov. 4 is a chance for reunification, and by electing the right candidates, we can get back on track and let Cooper do the job he was hired to do. If he's still employed by January.

And in the time leading up to November, there will be two schools of thought at play among the 20 candidates. The first of these consists of a large portion of the community who believes in Cooper and the Turnaround Plan. There will also be influence coming from the retired teachers, whose biggest beef over the last few months has centered on their resistance to charter schools and their animosity toward Cooper over publicly supporting the charters before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as a way of dealing with the system's over-crowding issue.

[A district by district breakdown:]

District 1
With incumbent Mark Allen Babineaux bailing, this seat attracted three candidates: Mary Morrison, "Coach Don" Gagnard and "Mama" Redell Comeaux Miller. Morrison is one of only two women to ever serve on the Lafayette City-Parish Council, having filled the remainder of husband Purvis' term after he was elected mayor of Scott. Morrison is a supporter of the Turnaround Plan and says she is running to fill the void in leadership on the school board. While little is known about Miller - who asked that all questions be submitted by email but has yet to respond - we know Gagnard is a retired wrestling coach with about 20 years in the Lafayette Parish School System. According to the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court's Office, however, Gagnard has several skeletons in his closet, including charges of stalking in 2003 and the violation of a protective order in 2004. District Attorney Mike Harson eventually dropped the charges. "There was an allegation, but it was all cleared. All false accusations," Gagnard says. "How many students and athletes did I help? Never had any problem with any students or any of my athletes, but these people all want to hone in on that negative. If it was true, I would have never qualified for this position. Anyone can charge someone like they're doing the superintendent now, and I just disagree with that."

District 2
Incumbent Tommy Angelle is seeking a second term (which we don't quite get because he rarely contributes at meetings and appears as though he'd rather be any place but in that seat), but will first have to get through two challengers, Simon Mahan and James A. Chavis. Angelle will need to explain why he has resisted the Turnaround Plan, his long-standing role among the board's anti-Cooper contingent, his support for a costly investigation aimed at Cooper's termination, as well as his refusal to pass a budget that didn't require massive layoffs and reductions in services offered to students. Of his two challengers, Mahan says he fully supports Cooper's plan. For Chavis, the message centers on the district's underprivileged. He says he's not too keen on the Turnaround Plan, although all the issues he considers critical, especially improving the education for low-income students, are featured quite prominently in Cooper's plan.

District 3
This district is represented by Shelton Cobb, a consistent supporter of Cooper and the Turnaround Plan. Cobb, who served as board president in 2013, will face one challenger, Elroy Broussard. We've been unsuccessful in our attempts to reach Broussard to discuss his campaign. What we do know is this won't be Broussard's first rodeo, as he's run, and lost, in two previous bids for the District 3 seat, including a run against Cobb in a 2008 special election after Rickey Hardy - whom Broussard also lost to - vacated the seat to run for state Legislature. In that election, Cobb won the race with 55.38 percent of the vote.

District 4
Expect a strong fight from incumbent Tehmi Chassion, who will get help from his half-brother Brandon Shelvin, the District 3 councilman, and former Councilman Chris Williams' United Ballot, which has the potential to raise money quickly. In his four years on the board, however, Chassion has emerged as one of the most resistant to Cooper's initiatives, and attempts to use his seat to financially grease the skids for his half-brother have recently brought him under the microscope of the FBI, State Police and the state Board of Ethics, all of which, according to multiple sources, are in the midst of investigating the board member. Chassion also was recently named a co-defendant, along with fellow board member Babineaux, in a federal lawsuit filed by Cajundome Director and education advocate Greg Davis. The suit calls for disqualifying Chassion and Babineaux from voting on any measures dealing with termination of the superintendent, and alleges a history of bias by both board members toward the super. Chassion's challenger is Erica Williams, who says she's appalled by Chassion's voting record against the troubled schools in the district. In fact, District 4 contains the most failing, or borderline failing schools in all of the school system, and Chassion has consistently voted against funding for staff increases to help reduce teacher-student ratios, and was against funding for special programs that would have provided health and wellness services for the students of his district. "J.W. Faulk Elementary has a student population with specific needs," says Erica Williams. "There's a large population of low-income students, and there's going to need to be additional funding to get those children up to educational standards. If that was my district, every effort I vote on would be in favor of sending resources to that school in need."

District 5
Kermit Bouillion has proven another of the board's perennial supporters of the Turnaround Plan, and he'll be defending his seat against a lone challenger, Britt Latiolais, who's spreading a campaign message opposite from Bouillion. Latiolais says he doesn't think the Turnaround Plan is a good fit and that a new plan should be adopted, though he doesn't specify what that plan would entail or who would draft such a plan.

District 6
This district's board member is Greg Awbrey, who's also vacating his seat after spending the last few years obstructing the Turnaround Plan. His vacancy has drawn two challengers - Kathleen Schott Espinoza and Justin Centanni. Espinoza is a supporter of the Turnaround Plan, but also purveys the interests of the retired teachers, and is expected to bring the influence from the local teachers union, of which her husband is the president. She has made charter schools one of the primary causes of her campaign. Centanni, on the other hand, is a businessman, running on a platform of support for the Turnaround Plan. Centanni is also open to charter schools being in the mix in Lafayette Parish. "I just met Ms. Espinoza for the first time last week, and she's actually a close friend of my extended family," says Centanni. "She comes from the same place as I do, which is a concern for our children and their future in the school system. The bottom line of what separates us is our points of view. I support choice for our school system, and that we should have alternatives. I know Ms. Espinoza, based on her statements and testimony before the Legislature, disagrees." Espinoza says her campaign is not about a referendum on the current board or the superintendent. "I want to be a school board member who works toward policy that executes the community's [Turnaround Plan] within budget and targets it where we need it most," says in a statement.  "I want to fight to ensure that for-profit charter schools will not continue to cripple our budget and unfairly hinder our ability to execute the [Turnaround Plan]. I want policies in place that address the teacher retention problem we see today in Lafayette Parish."

District 7
Mark Cockerham is another of the board's supporters for Cooper and his plan. He's facing a challenge from Dawn Morris, a local attorney, who along with District 6 candidate Espinoza, stands alongside the retired teachers on many issues. Cockerham will be getting some added support in his re-election bid, as Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais has indicated he'll be using his campaign fund - he'll be re-elected this fall without opposition - to raise money for at least two of the candidates running for school board. One of those, he confirmed, will be Cockerham. "So far, Mark Cockerham has been very supportive, and he's really been on virtually every [right] side of the issue as I've seen it," Langlinais says.

District 8
The contest for this seat may prove the most heated of the election, and will pit incumbent Hunter Beasley, the current board president, against businessman Erick Knezek. Beasley once was a supporter of Cooper's plan, but eventually shifted to the other side shortly after suspicions surfaced over his questionable handling of the process to select a group health plan for the school system, which resulted in the ongoing federal investigation that includes Chassion. Beasley's challenger, Knezek, hasn't wasted any time in getting his campaign off the ground, and his platform of support for the Turnaround Plan and a message that Beasley has acted out of self-interest, and not in the interests of students, will no doubt make this a heated contest.

District 9
The decision by incumbent Rae Trahan to vacate this seat was certainly followed by a sigh of relief from her constituents, as the last four years have largely been characterized by her antagonism for all things Cooper and the Turnaround Plan. With Trahan on the way out, District 9 will go to one of two challengers: Brian West or Jeremy Hidalgo. Of all the nine school board races, this is the one contest in which both candidates are professing similar platforms, with both saying they support the Turnaround Plan. Also unlike the other districts, District 9 - which encompasses the areas around Youngsville, Broussard and Milton - is faced with a growing population and not enough school facilities to meet the demand. Though he won't reveal which of the District 9 candidates he supports, Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais did have a few words for incumbent Rae Trahan, saying, "It's a good thing Rae isn't running again; Rae is just, well, I don't want to say out loud." For Langlinais, the biggest issue facing District 9 centers on the facilities shortage. "All the new candidates are to me, virtually, a breath of fresh air," says Langlinais. "I think the citizens are so disgusted with most of the rest of them and I think there's going to be a major shift. For me, there's going to be two questions I'm going to ask all candidates: Do you support charter schools? And do you support a Broussard/Youngsville referendum to build more schools? I'm going to oppose any candidate that doesn't support charters or the Broussard/Youngsville referendum."