Legislative Report

Bill to rename LSMSA could be decided in House Education Committee on Wednesday Local LSMSA alums join the fight over an attempt to rename the state’s premier public high school

by Mike Stagg

A bid to rename the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts has erupted into a legislative brawl pitting the school's core constituents (alumni, friends and families) versus friends and family of one of the school's founding fathers.

Sen. Francis Thompson's bid to rename the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts in Natchitoches after his late friend Rep. Jimmy D. Long Sr., is scheduled to be considered by the House Education Committee on Wednesday in what could be a decisive moment for SB1.

Thompson, a long-time state legislator from Delhi, says he merely "wants to give credit where credit is due" in renaming the school after Long, who died in an automobile accident in Natchitoches last year.

The 4,500-member LSMSA Alumni Association has been fighting Thompson's bill, saying the school's board of directors has already decided to honor Long by naming its new residential dormitory after the late legislator.

Acadiana graduates of the Natchitoches school, a state-funded school that attracts some of the state's top high school students for a rigorous, three-year academic program, have joined in the fight against the name change. Some will attend Wednesday's committee meeting, which is scheduled to convene at 9 a.m. in House Committee Room 1.

The dispute is not over honoring Long, whom all parties acknowledge was one of the school's founding fathers. The question is over how best to do so.

"For as long as I've been involved with the school, there were four men who were recognized as being essential to the existence of the school," according to 1995 LSMSA grad Justin Centanni. "They were Jimmy Long, Gov. Dave Treen, Sen. Don Kelly and our first executive director, Dr. Bob Alost, who left Northwestern to start the school."

Because state law prohibits naming structures after people who are still living, plans to honor the schools founders have had to wait until after they have died.

"After Gov. Treen died," Centanni told The Independent, "the school named the auditorium after him. After Mr. Long died, the plan became to name the new residence hall after him."

The LSMSA's governing board announced that decision with members of the Long family present at its December 2016 board meeting. Sen. Gerald Long, Jimmy Long's brother, thanked the board and said that he would ask his brother's long-time friend Sen. Thompson to handle the legislation needed to enable his brother to be honored by the school.

When Thompson filed SB1 on January 30, the bill was not to name the residence hall after his late friend but to rename the entire school after Long.

The school's Alumni Association conducted a poll of its members on the matter. With 42 percent of those polled responding, 74 percent opposed the name change while 82 percent favored naming the residence hall after Long.

Dawne Landry went from Jennings to LSMSA where she graduated in 1991. The Lafayette resident opposes the name change because it risks damaging the reputation the school has gained over the past 35 years in higher education circles.

"Changing the name might affect college applications of students there now and in future years," Landry says. "This is the number one school in the state. In the last school year, LSMSA students won more than $20 million in merit-based scholarships. Changing the name takes away name recognition and the could have an impact on the ability of future classes to earn those scholarships."

Landry says the LSMSA had a profound impact on her life.

"Coming from a rural home town, I didn't have the kinds of academic opportunities that were available to us at the Louisiana School," Landry explains. "If you change the name, you have to start over from square one rebuilding the school's repetitional value."

LSMSA alum Renae Broussard points out that adding Long's name to the school name would create another unanticipated problem.

"The Jimmy D. Long, Sr. Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts would not fit on digitized college applications," Broussard pointed out in an email. "That would force shortening, and potentially impact graduating seniors admission and scholarship opportunities by being unrecognizable."

Broussard believes that naming the new residence hall after Long is the best way to honor him because the experience of dormitory life is where the relationships created at the school are forged.

"While LSMSA provides a nationally ranked education, the dormitories are where our alumni family is formed," she wrote. "They are truly the heart of the school."

Broussard points out that LSMSA alumni regularly return to the school to participate in sweat equity activities at the school.

"This bond, this overwhelming love for the school and the unbelievable alumni camaraderie that spans generations, was forged in the dormitories," Broussard continued. "I believe that it is a significantly more fitting honor to name the new dorm after Rep. Long, and I believe he would agree with me."

Ashley Martin agrees.

The 1991 LSMSA grad described the intensity of student life at LSMSA as life-changing.

"It's an intense experience that really shapes you," Martin said in a telephone interview. "You live together for two years and strong bonds are created. You become like a band of brothers." (LSMSA now has three years of classes on its campus.)

"What you're exposed to at this school is just phenomenal," Martin explains. "You can't get that anywhere else in this state."

Martin says she hopes her children are able to attend LSMSA.

Martin has been contacting other alumni to encourage them to contact their local legislators to express their opposition to SB1. She's also written letters to members of the House Education Committee and to area legislators explaining her reasons for opposing SB1.

Landry says she plans to attend the hearing tomorrow morning, along with alumni from Acadiana and across the state.

"The vision of the school and our founding fathers is kept alive through the students," Landry says. "Don't take that away from the students and the state of Louisiana."

Sen. Thompson has declared his intention to amend his bill in order to try to make it more palatable to the school's alumni, but he still intends to rename the school after his friend. He will introduce the changes in the Education Committee tomorrow. If the amendments are approved and the bill advances to the House floor, the bill will have to return to the Senate for concurrence with the House-approved amendments.

The calendar is not Thompson's ally here, although the House might hold sessions over the weekend, which could buy him more time to let the bill work its way through the procedural process.

If the bill is defeated in committee tomorrow it is dead for the session.