Why the school board bought out Superintendent James Easton's contract - and what it means for the future of the school system.
He's surrounded by school officials seated at the rows of round tables at the old Vermilion Elementary School, now converted into a conference hall. He holds up a small stack of printouts.
Typically, Dr. James Easton begins these monthly principals' meetings with some general thoughts about the direction of the school system and what's been in the news recently. At this forum, he's focusing on some of the anonymously posted "story chat" comments from The Daily Advertiser's Web site regarding Easton's troubles with the Lafayette Parish School Board.
True to form, most of the comments are a hornets' nest of vitriol and rumor, and Easton reads them aloud. There's the one that says all the area directors appointed by Easton are "deadheads." Another that says Easton needs to be replaced by deputy superintendent Burnell Lemoine. And one that says Easton's defense of grants administrator Amy Trahan is due to a romantic affair.
The 72-year-old superintendent strolls down the middle aisle of the former cafeteria, prodding the silent audience. He punctuates each of the comments he reads by inquiring, "Right?"
Easton appears to be half-joking, but for many in attendance, including Lemoine and all of the area directors, the tension is palpable and Easton's speech is drifting. The superintendent then rams home his main point: If the school board wants to try and fire him or not honor his contract, they'll never see a fight like the one Easton will give them.
A month after the meeting, Easton says he was only mocking the rumors and that he wanted to clear the air. But others felt the remarks were inappropriate. "It's a professional meeting," says Edgar Martin Middle School Principal Bobby Badeaux, "and it should maintain a professional conversation. But it's his meeting, and he can discuss whatever he likes."
The opposing characterizations of the incident show how Easton's ongoing feud with the school board inevitably spilled over into official school business. Two weeks ago, the school board voted to end the standoff and bought out the remaining 18 months on Easton's contract for a hefty price tag of approximately $282,000. The highly controversial move has prompted protest letters to the school board from the likes of Broussard Mayor Charlie Langlinais and former Lafayette Police Major Ralph Peters.
The reasoning behind the move remains elusive to many. "That's the $300,000 question," says board member Rickey Hardy, who voted against the buyout. "There were no major problems that they could not address but they continued saying they wanted to go in a new direction. They have not given [Easton] any directions or instructed him what new directions they want to go in. They don't know what they're talking about."
As Peters wrote, "Has Dr. Easton failed to abide by his terms of the contract? Has this board given him direction or instruction which he failed to properly carry out? If Dr. Easton has failed to do his job, then by all means fire him. If you cannot fire him for just cause, then I, as a taxpayer, demand that you honor his contract and require him to do his job until and unless he gives cause for his termination."
Beyond the financial concerns, it's been stunning to see how Easton, who led the school system through such milestones as achieving unitary status on a 40-year-old desegregation case, and the challenges of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, could have fallen out of favor so quickly with the board and the school system.
"The public really hadn't been told," says board member Hunter Beasley, who initially had reservations about the buyout. "They see some little things here and there but really I don't think they had the whole picture. And they look at it, and it is a lot of money."
Beasley says the buyout is for the betterment of the school system. "Morale in the school system has been very low," he says. "I've heard a lot from teachers that they're not getting support from the superintendent. There was no direction. I mean, we're lucky that the system is not in worse shape than it is right now."
Easton says he regrets that the confrontations got so heated. "There's no question the relationship between the superintendent and the school board left a lot to be desired," he says. "It wasn't good for the community at all."
When he first became superintendent in 2001, Easton was seen as a breath of fresh air when compared to his predecessor, Dr. Michael Zolkoski. Easton embraced an open door policy with all staff and made public outreach a high priority. Always upbeat and personable, he regularly visited schools and teachers to get feedback.
Several sources within the school system ' all of whom asked to remain anonymous as the current politics play out ' say that Easton's tenure began to get off track around 2004, when many schoolchildren weren't picked up at bus stops in the highly publicized transportation department debacle. In 2005, more issues took root when Easton instituted a staff reorganization plan he claimed would cut through the central office bureaucracy and put more money and focus into the classrooms. He made sweeping changes, including the controversial moves of handing district risk manager Mona Bernard the additional duties of human resources, as well as placing grants writer Amy Trahan in charge of all grants and title funds. He divided the school district into four quadrants, with area directors in charge of each respective jurisdiction.
After the staff shakeup, Easton's critics say he became more removed from the school system. His school visits became less frequent, and he spent more time in Baton Rouge. He began telling people that he now had "the right people on the bus" to where it could run itself.
That largely set the stage for the showdown that began when the new school board took over at the beginning of the year. Shortly after last October's elections, several new school board members began putting Easton on notice. Their campaigns had promised a break from the status quo, and they intended to follow through with those pledges. Two of the new members, Rae Trahan and Greg Awbrey, were partly inspired to run for office by their prior dealings with Easton. Bus driver Trahan had argued with Easton and the old school board in trying to get more miles on her routes and was concerned that Easton may try and privatize the school's transportation system. Awbrey had fought with Easton over the school system's plans to consolidate its French immersion program at Alice Bouchet Elementary.
Eager to make its mark quickly, the new board put in voluminous information requests to central office staff, and Awbrey says there was a conscious effort not to maintain business as usual. "The last school board took filtered information and made the decision that the staff and the superintendent wanted," he says. "And that was the end of it. We want to make good decisions and not just the decisions that are handed to us. And that's been the problem the whole time. We're trying to lead the school system and we're not wanted that way."
One of the new board's first actions, back in January, was to remove Easton from the board table at meetings to reduce his control of discussions.
"Moving my seat unto itself certainly was symbolic," says Easton, "but more importantly, I would have wanted at least one board member from that group to have come to me and said, 'Look, we're thinking about moving your seat and here's why.'"
"I would have expressed my disagreement," he adds, "but at least I would have felt that they were being forthright. So clearly I knew at that point that this wasn't going to work."
At the same meeting, the board passed a motion requiring central office staff to provide all requested information within 72 hours. Board member Hunter Beasley, a UL Lafayette education professor and former Lafayette public school teacher says he wanted to address complaints from teachers and staff regarding the superintendent's office.
"Before I even got on the board," he says, "I told [Easton] that was one key thing, we need information to make informed decisions. We started asking questions. We wanted to know why things were going on. I don't think he liked it because we were questioning him."
It wasn't long before the board latched onto signs it saw of a broken system.
Its members became increasingly concerned over grants administrator Amy Trahan's department. It appeared to be ballooning with temporary clerical staff, while the district's $15 million in Title funding faced repeated delays. Schools were complaining that Trahan was not addressing their requisition orders or keeping up with mid-year budgets that allowed them to properly plan through the year. Aside from Title funds, other grants appeared to go neglected. A physical education grant sat unused, and the district was forced to repay $132,000 from a Wallace Foundation grant due to poor management.
Other departments also faced problems. In March, the state classified Lafayette Parish as "unacceptable" in its percentage of classes taught by certified teachers. Only seven other districts in the state ranked below Lafayette. Easton's staff was caught by surprise. The day the standings came out, Human Resources Director Ramona Bernard had little explanation, telling The Advertiser, "I'm very disappointed. I thought we were doing better than that."
Despite the mounting problems in the school district, board members still hesitated to fire Easton. Some held out hopes that a state legislative audit of the grants department ' still yet to be released ' would provide just cause for Easton's termination. However, as time went on, it became increasingly clear that the audit was unlikely to produce anything that would trump Easton's case for wrongful termination in court. Easton continued to challenge the board to honor his contract. In addition, he exposed the board for skirting open meetings laws in its backroom negotiations and for threatening him in a closed-door meeting for not accepting a nine-month buy out.
Mike Hefner, the board's senior member and a longtime supporter of Easton, says the issue clearly got out of hand. "Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of issues both in the management of the school system and in how we're approaching some things, and I'm not saying that maybe it's not time for a change in superintendents. My thing is you base those decisions on good data and good business practices.
"And there's ways of going about doing this," he continues. "To me, I think they're doing it in a way that maximizes humiliation to him. And I'm sorry, that just doesn't give Lafayette Parish a very good name out there in the educational world."
Cajundome Director Greg Davis, who heads the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce's public education division, began to get concerned about the situation back in January. He recalls going to an event put on by the state department of education in Baton Rouge and getting multiple inquiries from officials about what was happening in Lafayette. "These were major players in the education establishment from around the state," he says. "They were asking, 'What's going on? What's the problem?' It was really making our city look bad."
Davis soon began making personal calls to both Carl LaCombe and Easton to try and encourage them to reach a deal; no one wanted this to drag into the start of another school year. "The dispute was not in the best interest of the school system, the children in the classroom, nor the community," he says. "And it needed to be resolved."
He credits LaCombe with ultimately guiding the board to act on the situation. "He desperately wanted to get this thing resolved," Davis says. "Carl was also very concerned. He also thought that it was not good for the system to have this ongoing dispute. I think where we are today has a lot to do with Carl's leadership."
With the nationwide average tenure of superintendents only about three years, many recognize Easton's six-year-plus tenure as an achievement in itself. "It's a high stress job," Hefner says. "Superintendents can get burnt out very quick. To last six years in a district says a lot."
The 72-year-old administrator marked a number of firsts in his career: first black principal of a desegregated school in Grand Rapids, Mich., first black deputy and interim superintendent in Fort Wayne, Ind., first black superintendent of the Lafayette Parish School System.
Federal Judge Richard Haik, who oversaw the Lafayette Parish School System's desegregation case, says Easton has done a tremendous service for the community. "Dr. Easton was an excellent superintendent," he says. "This school system would not have obtained unitary status without his guidance, without his innovative projects, and without his ability to get that job done. I've made no bones about that."
Packing up his office last week, Easton appeared to be looking forward to new opportunities. "Hey, I'm on the market," he says. "I'm not at all unhappy about moving on. I just would have preferred that it would have been handled, in my judgment, more professionally." Dressed in white sneakers, blue pants, and a white Lafayette Parish School Board polo shirt, Easton said he's looking at other jobs in education as well as maybe doing some writing, but first he's likely taking a vacation.
Hefner wonders how the school system's recent treatment of Easton will affect the search for its next superintendent.
"How are you going to attract a good caliber superintendent when you're playing these games?" he asks. "Removing the superintendent from the discussions on the board floor, threatening the superintendent if he doesn't leave immediately ... constantly seizing on every problem in the school system so you can turn it around and blame it on him. I mean, who's going to want to come and be in charge of a system like that?"
The state currently has 16 superintendent positions that have opened up this year, which puts a high premium on quality superintendents. "What is going to be available out there?" asks Hefner. "That's a real concern. And I've been through five of these. It's a very high-stress, very demanding time. You're trying to make the best decisions for the school district and you just hope and pray that you make the right decision."
Thus far, the school board is putting its faith in its Chief Academic Officer Burnell Lemoine, who begins this week as interim superintendent. According to board member Beasley, Lemoine knows the school system and will be able to step in and make an immediate difference.
"I know that [Lemoine] is very excited and very energized," Beasley says. "He recognizes a lot of problems, and he's going to be committed to cleaning up a lot of these problems. I know that he has some plans already of what to do to get the system back on track. And I'm excited myself. I can see a promising change for Lafayette Parish, and this is change for the better."
Over the next year, Beasley is determined to prove the skeptics of the new school board wrong.
"I'm going to show the public that we will recoup that money [for Easton's buy out]," he says. "And we're going to be bringing more money in just by being a little more responsible."
"The morale in Lafayette Parish is already better," he adds. "The second thing is I think Burnell wants to open up communication and get some ideas from the people that really know what's going on, the principals, to try to get their input into how we can improve things in this school system."