Cover Story

Status Quo v. Progress: A Fight to Control Our Schools

by Patrick Flanagan

The last three years in Lafayette Parish have proven a difficult and tired road for longtime education advocates like Greg Davis, whose hard-fought efforts finally hit a brick wall as 2014 came to a close.

The last three years in Lafayette Parish have proven a difficult and tired road for longtime education advocates like Greg Davis, whose hard-fought efforts finally hit a brick wall as 2014 came to a close.

For the Lafayette Parish School System, 2014 was dominated by an epic power struggle between two age-old factions: the forces for progress and for keeping the status quo. A New Year is now upon us, and while it’s unclear what the newly elected board will do, the status quo faction now has a tighter grip in the aftermath of the 2014 fight to control the reigns of our school system’s future.

For Davis, the fight to bring meaningful progress to the LPSS is by no means over, but with setbacks ranging from the premature ouster of a nationally-respected superintendent — one with a vision and a proven record of leaving struggling school districts far better off than he found them — to the election of another school board comprised of a status quo majority, getting back to where we were before 2014 will ultimately take time and a little luck.

Rewind three years, 2012 is just getting underway, and throughout the parish there’s a new air of excitement and unity for the future of our school system. And while that excitement would be shared by countless members of this community, it would ultimately be laid to rest on the shoulders of one man: Pat Cooper, a veteran educator with 22 years experience and a proven track record for turning around troubled school systems with high-poverty rates and all the academic obstacles that poses, including two major success stories in McComb, Miss., and the New Orleans Recovery School District.

In what at the time was seen as a rarity in the history of past and present school boards, a five-member majority emerged in late-2011 to allow for the selection of a superintendent based on merits, straying from the entitlement system of old. It was a welcome break from the long tradition of board members basing votes on the personal/political impact. Cooper’s hire represented a step away from that old “I’ll scratch your back” system, and was seen by many in this community as a big step forward, one that would ultimately be key in fixing our long-broken school system by turning all the students into academic equals, giving them all the same tools for success, regardless of how much money their parents made or where they lived.

Shortly after Cooper’s arrival came the rollout of the Turnaround Plan, and with it, Lafayette Parish took a big step forward for the future of our school system.

Yet on the evening of the Turnaround Plan’s passage by the board on April 18, 2012 — following a six-month period in which Cooper and 400 volunteers spent countless hours hammering out all the plan’s components — one community leader and supporter of the plan, Patrick Williams of the 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette, forewarned that the plan’s naysayers wouldn’t just drop their efforts of subversion. Here’s what Williams said that night: “We’ve been going through this process for quite some time now, and I’ve never thought I’d see an emotional night like tonight after all we’ve been through. As is with politics, these nights will come again. Let’s not get distracted tonight by what we’re hearing in opposition to this plan. This plan is solid. But to those who oppose it it’ll never be solid.”

Though it’s been about 2.5 years since that meeting, Williams’ comment, “to those who oppose it it’ll never be solid,” rings truer now than it ever did.

And with the excitement felt in 2012 having since evaporated, and with Cooper gone too (terminated by the board in November), all that remains from 2012 — a year seen by many in the community, people like Greg Davis, as the start of a new era for the school system — is a hope that the Turnaround Plan will survive another year.

Davis’ unbending support of Cooper’s plan isn’t difficult to understand: It specifically targets the schools located in areas of Lafayette near and dear to the longtime director of the Cajundome, schools that for too long have been ignored by our school boards and superintendents. These schools are considered at-risk, they’re located in Lafayette’s more economically disadvantaged areas, and are exactly the types of schools included in Cooper’s résumé of past success stories.

One problem the plan has faced since the beginning is misinformation, as seen in one of the more commonly aired complaints against the plan: that the costs have been too high and the results too few. Yet, when the plan was first approved by the board in July 2012, it was known that making all the meaningful changes as desired by the community would cost. The price tag: $30 million to get it going over the first six years, followed by $25 million in annually recurring costs to keep it afloat in the years after. In its nearly three-year run, instead of the $21 million needed, the board has only allocated about $8 million to fund the plan.

But as we go forward, the question now is what will the next few months have in store for the plan? Will the new board embrace the plan or walk away in favor of starting fresh with a plan of its own design?

For Jason El Koubi, president and CEO of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, it would be a big mistake for the incoming board to write off the Turnaround Plan.

“The incoming school board has an opportunity to advance a shared vision for what our school system can become,” says El Koubi. “Building renewed stakeholder consensus is going to require significant leadership and community engagement, but the key elements of the Turnaround Plan offer an excellent foundation. At its core, the plan is really a statement about what our community wants in its public school system. When we consider the plan as the community’s aspiration, two essential points remain unchanged: First, the status quo is unacceptable. We have too many D and F schools. Second, the plan’s basic strategies and tactics, such as expanded early childhood

education and health/wellness programs, remain as important as ever for improving student outcomes.” — Patrick Flanagan