Bad blood between the Lafayette public school system and state Rep. Rickey Hardy is beginning to boil A united “What the hell?” rippled across the public-school community in Lafayette last Wednesday when educators opened their morning paper and learned that the man who represents them in the Legislature had blocked $746,000 in grant money from Lafayette Parish — and Lafayette Parish only — the day before during a joint House-Senate Education Committee hearing. The funding was part of millions of dollars from the Louisiana Educational Excellence Fund derived from the 1998 tobacco settlement and distributed annually by state lawmakers to parish school systems, primarily for dropout prevention programs.
But Rep. Rickey Hardy, D-Lafayette, is upset that the school system didn’t contact him prior to the meeting to indicate it was seeking the funding. “You want me to try to bring home the bacon, and yet you still have not notified me when you request it,” Hardy fumes when asked by The Independent Weekly about his decision to block the funding. The first-term state rep perceives the failure to contact him as a snub. “At some point in time you’ve got to at least respect the office of the person who’s in the office,” he says. “You may agree or disagree with that person or dislike their personality, but at the end of the day you have to respect the office.”
The Lafayette Parish School System had submitted its grant application to the state Department of Education like it always has and expected to receive the funding — like it always does. LPSS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Louise Chargois couldn’t mask her consternation in an article last Wednesday in The Daily Advertiser: “I really find it quite upsetting that Mr. Hardy would choose to set our school system up for failure,” she told the paper. “By making these blocks he is preventing children from staying in school and having innovate ways to learn.”
The hearing last week at the Capitol and the two days of drama that followed are just the latest chapter in a sometimes rocky relationship between Hardy and the LPSS central office, going back to Hardy’s more than a decade as a member of the Lafayette Parish School Board. While on the board, Hardy was outspoken and a frequent critic of school system administrators. And although he doesn’t say it explicitly, there is an indication in Hardy’s tone these days that the LPSS is practicing some old-fashioned pay back for his years spent as a thorn in the side of the administration.
“By no means was it a snub,” LPSS Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry says of the school system’s failure to contact Hardy about the grant application. “It just hasn’t been part of the process for any of our grants.”
Hardy isn’t buying it. “That’s the way the procedures normally work; you’re going to contact the representative when they have cuts to higher education, when they have cuts to elementary and secondary education, people come and speak with representatives,” he insists. “If it’s a salary increase, people come to the Capitol to speak with the representative; when it benefits them, they come and speak. But when it benefits the children, you don’t get no phone call. Where is the logic in that? I mean, all you have to do is give me a phone call, and it’s not like I’ve never forewarned Ms. Louise Chargois; I spoke to her about it this year, and she claims she didn’t know.”
At the joint House-Senate hearing last week, Hardy was clearly simmering with anger over not having been contacted by the LPSS. (Video of the hearing can be viewed at the Legislature’s Web site, http://house.louisiana.gov/H_Video/2009/Nov2009.htm.) But when he offered his motion to block only Lafayette Parish from receiving the funding, the room fell quiet, and fellow state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, tried to override the motion. However, fellow Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, reminded the panel that lawmakers typically defer to one another on matters pertaining to their individual districts. The motion won the day. The funding was blocked.
The next day, realizing it could be out nearly three quarters of a million dollars in grant funding, the school system reached out to Hardy to repair relations. The LPSS characterizes the fracas as a simple misunderstanding. “It’s just never come up,” Guidry says about contacting a state representative regarding grant applications. Guidry says the school system submits between 75 and 100 grant applications — both state and federal worth roughly $40 million each year — and while the LEEF grant is significant, administrators simply were not aware of the need to contact Hardy after the application had been submitted to and approved by the state Department of Education.
Hardy says school systems were notified about the need to contact their state representatives regarding the LEEF grant money well ahead of last week’s hearing. Hardy’s office provided The Independent with a copy of an email it says was sent by Joe Salter, director of governmental affairs for the DOE, to school systems statewide. In it, Salter notifies administrators about the Nov. 10 meeting and adds, “I would suggest that you touch base with these legislators prior to the meeting and brief them on your proposals and request their support.” The day news broke that Hardy had blocked the LPSS funding — Wednesday — Guidry sent Hardy a letter stating, “With regret, we have no record of having received such an email.”
Hardy has since softened his stand on the funding but hints at more hardball to come. “We’re working on it,” he says. “It’s still not written in stone just yet to determine what direction I’m going to go in.” But it’s the bottom of the ninth, and the first-term lawmaker boasts of his lead: “If I put the issue on the docket [in December] and bring it back up for reconsideration, they will get the money.”
The school system, meanwhile, finds itself walking on proverbial eggshells. No matter how irascible Hardy is, the LPSS has to smile and take it. “Now that we’re aware of it,” says Guidry, choosing his words carefully, “I have no problems nor would the superintendent for that particular grant application in future years giving him a call and letting him know what our intentions are for use of the funds.”