Alternate Universes

by Walter Pierce

Lafayette’s chamber of commerce and school system are at odds and both are standing their ground. “They’re throwing this stuff out there because it sounds good, but they really don’t know what’s happening in our school system,” says school board member Greg Awbrey about the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce. The District 6 representative is at a firing range, guns blazing in the background, and his voice rises the deeper he goes into the issue of school board reform.

School performance in Lafayette, as The Independent Weekly has reported, has been a bur under the saddle of several current and former members of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, who are chafed by the system’s measurable inability to reach its own goals. Perhaps those goals were too ambitious, but a deal is a deal, according to chamber members, who in 2001 agreed to support a half-cent sales tax to increase Lafayette teacher pay in exchange for the school system setting performance goals.

Now eight years later, the chamber wants to cash in its chips. Armed with two recent performance assessments by former chamber Chairman Greg Davis and advancing with a column of reform advocates like the Public Affairs Research Council, the Council for a Better Louisiana and state school Superintendent Paul Pastorek, the chamber is calling on the Lafayette Parish School Board to reform itself. The chamber is asking the board to reduce its pay to $200 per month and leave personnel decisions (hiring/firing) to the superintendent, among other requests.

Chamber President Rob Guidry believes the local school system simply is not keeping up. “The system is out of date,” Guidry asserts. “We dress differently today than we did 40 years ago. We travel differently than we travelled 40 years ago. We communicate differently than we did 40 years ago. Yet, our school system operates in basically the same fashion as it did 40 years ago.”

Awbrey is having none of it. “They stated on the radio — I was listening, I was furious — they’re saying that our school system is not progressive and has not progressed in 50 years,” Aubrey says, indignant. “In the last eight years we’ve added the academies; we have an academy of science in middle school, we have a medical academy, we have an engineering academy. Just last year we added a degree program where high school students can go to the community college as freshmen and gain an associate’s degree and a high school diploma at the same time. That’s not progressive enough for the chamber apparently.”

In fact, most of Awbrey’s fellow board members have openly and publicly rejected calls for reform, and the movement to reform how school boards operate is already misfiring in the Legislature’s spring session: Two of four reform bills were cut down last week — one (term limits) rejected in committee, the other (strengthen nepotism laws) voluntarily pulled by its author. The two remaining bills — one to cap board member per diems at $200 per month and the other to remove school boards from hiring and firing decisions — were considered before the session began to be the hardest to pass.

“You ask the chamber, ‘What do you expect to accomplish by reducing board member pay?’ They won’t answer the question. Ask them,” Awbrey insists.

Lafayette school Superintendent Burnell Lemoine is likewise opposed to the idea, also pointing to initiatives such as academies and the parish’s preschool program as proof of innovation by the school system. “You take Shreveport, New Orleans, you take Monroe and Baton Rouge, how many of the schools have now been taken over by the state?” Lemoine asks. “We don’t have those. Do we have one that’s a possibility? That’s true. We do have one. We certainly are addressing the issue.”

Lemoine is referring to Alice Boucher Elementary, Lafayette’s lowest-performing school. In 2001 when the deal between LPSS and the chamber was struck, Boucher’s performance score was 43. In the document “Lafayette Parish Public School System and Workforce Literacy Performance Measurement Model” — presented to the chamber by the school system following a rigorous peer-review process that same year — LPSS’ goal for Boucher was to have a performance score of 100 in 2008. The actual score was 56.70. In fact, only two Lafayette Parish elementary schools — Green T. Lindon and Ernest Gallet — exceeded the performance goals set by LPSS. Fourteen schools, however, improved over the seven-year span, according to Davis’ assessment; six schools showed declines (five of those six are predominately white schools). However, none, save for Lindon and Gallet, met the 2008 performance goal set by LPSS. That lack of progress is what prompted the chamber’s call for school board reform.

“In the same way that this school board adopted term limits for themselves, why can’t they adopt any other issue for themselves? I think they can,” says current chamber Chairman Kam Movassaghi. “When we look at our position with regard to other school systems in the state we don’t fare well, at least for a community like our community, we don’t fare well. We think there’s nothing wrong with setting those goals and trying to achieve those goals.”

The performance goal document generated in 2001 was indeed ambitious: “... for all schools to achieve at least Academically Above Average according to the state accountability guidelines” it reads on Page 8. School system leaders say Lafayette Parish was improving until 2005 when hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused major disruptions to many Louisiana parishes, Lafayette included. “With the hurricane and redistribution of students and in some cases the elimination of some schools and some school systems,” says Louise Chargois, LPSS’ director of curriculum and instruction, “a lot of districts went down and started to recover from that beginning in the 2006-2007 school year.”

“The chamber is not quarrelling with the school system’s administrative leadership,” says Guidry, “but it continues to question and challenge the mode under which the school board operates. The system has talented, dedicated people. However, the system hampers their innovation and their ability to take risks.”

It’s as if the school system and the chamber exist in alternate universes, and all indicators suggest the school board has no intention of moving into orbit with the chamber.

“If I’m going to be held responsible for the condition of the schools and the employees who work in them and the superintendent we have running our schools, then I need to have the authority to make changes,” Awbrey insists.

Movassaghi, meanwhile, is philosophical. “If the entire package fails this year,” he says of the reform bills the Legislature is considering, “I don’t think the entire issue is going to go away in coming years. This is a good-government issue, and I think if we don’t succeed this year, there’s always the next year, and I think this is not going to go away.”