Walter Pierce

RE: The Next 359

by Walter Pierce

Six days into the new year and the vexing issues that will face Lafayette in 2010 are slow to materialize.

We won’t be climbing out of a fiscal hole like many communities — thankfully the Great Recession hasn’t sunk its teeth too deeply into our hide, and the administration and council have done a fair job of making sure we live within our means. The price of oil and natural gas will, however, figure greatly into our fortunes, as it does every year.

In the meantime:

Will the Lafayette Parish School System and the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce make nice after years of strained relations? Some current and former members of the chamber remain miffed over a 2001 agreement with the LPSS. In it, the chamber agreed to support a sales tax for the school system in exchange for the central office signing off on a massive, detailed plan to raise scores in public schools in the parish. The sales tax passed. The agreement was signed by both sides. Nine years later the scores in Lafayette Parish, one of the most affluent in the state, remain middle of the pack. They’ve climbed some, and the LPSS has shown an admirable knack for innovation in the interim, but today’s scores fall far short of the 2001 document. There’s been some behind-the-scenes bickering between the two lately over the agreement, which the chamber failed to periodically monitor (one source says chamber leadership can’t even locate the original document) and which the school system says no longer applies because the method by which the state gauges performance has changed.

But the LPSS will once again need the chamber, if not this year then probably the next. It wasn’t for naught that the LPSS hired a Baton Rouge planning firm to assess the physical condition of our public schools. Among the firm’s conclusions: More than a dozen schools are in such poor shape that the cost of repairing them — plugging the leaks, replacing the ducts, repairing the roofs — is at least 65 percent the cost of building new schools to replace them. These are public buildings maintained by public funds. Can we not expect the LPSS to approach taxpayers in the foreseeable future asking for a funding source (read, sales tax)? And can the LPSS do it without the endorsement of the chamber, which, its reputation as a vanilla booster club notwithstanding, comprises some heavy hitters in Lafayette’s civic life?

And what of the fizzled-in-the-frying-pan story of 2009, the “horse farm” — those 98 acres of serene, rolling hills in the heart of Lafayette that are supposed to become our own little Central Park? UL, the city and the Community Foundation of Acadiana, the players in this drama, say a benevolent Daddy Warbucks who prefers to remain anonymous is ready to gift $5.7 million to the CFA to buy the horse farm from the university, provided the Community Foundation can raise that same amount to develop and care for the park. As of last check there was no new news to report on the biggest story of last spring. It’s just kind of sitting there, like the horse farm.

Will the City-Parish Council come up with a solution to maintaining order in downtown Lafayette on weekend nights — a solution that satisfies both the bar owners, who take the brunt of the blame and who, given their druthers, would prefer status quo, and some of the downtown’s non-bar merchants who are calling for Draconian measures like curfews and banning 18 to 20-year-olds from the nightclubs?

And speaking of the CPC, will it resolve that nagging, annual cough we call NGO funding? Or will the same old battle over tossing a pittance to a handful of non-profit agencies return come budget time this summer? The CFA, which has offered to maintain an endowment for non-profit funding, could figure into this story line. Many, however, would prefer the CFA keep the blinders on and rein in the horse farm deal.