Cover Story

Point of No Return

by Walter Pierce

Wednesday, June 7, 2007
Written by Walter Pierce
Photos by Robin May

After five terms on the Lafayette Parish School Board and the possibility of running unopposed for a sixth, Mike Hefner is calling it quits.

When Mike Hefner left the Independent Weekly office on Jefferson Street after an hour-plus interview recently, he climbed into a peach-colored Mazda sports car and drove away. Peach...

**Wednesday, June 7, 2007
Written by Walter Pierce
Photos by Robin May

After five terms on the Lafayette Parish School Board and the possibility of running unopposed for a sixth, Mike Hefner is calling it quits.

[Editor's Note: After this issue of The Independent went to press, longtime school board member and current board president Carl LaCombe announced that he will not seek re-election. LaCombe is completing his fourth term on the board.]

When Mike Hefner left The Independent Weekly office on Jefferson Street after an hour-plus interview recently, he climbed into a peach-colored Mazda sports car and drove away. Peach.

Something didn't fit. Hugh Hefner, maybe, but not buttoned-down Mike, who has spent 21 of the last 25 years managing to fit in with a Lafayette Parish School Board that has slowly, sometimes painfully evolved from a good-ole-boy, police jury-style political board to a professional panel. Detractors will line up to dispute that characterization - professional school board - and the Lafayette Parish School Board has its share of critics, particularly within the business community. But Hefner says the evolution from 1986, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of his father-in-law (Ernest Faulk stepped down from the board due to health), to today has been dramatic.

"The difference between the way the board was in '86 and the way the board is now is night and day," he insists. "You don't see it, but I lived through it. Everybody had their fiefdom."

Hefner recounts an anecdote from his fill-in year on the board. Then 30 years old and getting his sea legs, he got a call from the personnel department asking him who among three candidates for a bus route he wanted for the job. "I say, Now wait a minute, I'm to pick who that is?' Well yeah [personnel replies], the board members always pick - cafeteria, school bus, support workers. Y'all make the final decision.'" The freshman board member had the temerity to ask who the most qualified candidate was and to suggest that that person be hired. The exchange was a jarring welcome for the wide-eyed Hefner, who joined the board in an era when members dispensed jobs and favors for favors in return - the quid pro quo that has defined Louisiana politics forever and a political nadir the most optimistic among us believe we're only now escaping.

"That's how it was back then; that's what was expected," he recalls. "So we've worked over the years - previous boards before I even got on in '86, you had a small group on the board that was trying to move toward that. But you had a lot of the old politicians on it. Over the years it's been slowly moving toward being a professional school board that deals with policy, works through the superintendent, holds the superintendent accountable, holds themselves accountable. It's been an evolution."
It's an evolution that Hefner will no longer be a part of at the end of this current term. (Qualifying for the October primary election for school board begins today and ends Friday.) Two weeks ago the 54-year-old announced his retirement.

Mike Hefner has served during a period of change and innovation in the Lafayette Parish School System. He was there when the board made a huge financial commitment to lowering the student-teacher ratio, adopted a uniform policy, created academies and schools of choice, embraced a pre-kindergarten Montessori program, attained unitary status after more than three decades of oversight by the federal government, created a dual enrollment program at South Louisiana Community College and voted to fund and build a comprehensive career and technical high school - the first new high school in the parish in generations. He has worked with six superintendents, many with wildly varying administrative styles - autocratic, combative, detached, hands-on.

The board has proven itself willing to test concepts and to adopt new strategies. What it hasn't been able to do is keep the graph line charting academic growth in the parish on the same ascendent slope as the parish's economic performance. Lafayette is in the top five statewide in population and prosperity, yet our educational ranking has been stagnant - in the upper teens to mid-20s - during the better part of the last two decades.

Three weeks ago The Independent Weekly emailed questionnaires to members of the LPSB seeking their thoughts on a wide range of topics pertaining mainly to academic performance. By deadline for this story, only Hefner had replied (although we received commitments from others), and clocking in at more than 4,500 words, his responses to the 22 questions were detailed and thoughtful.

For all the achievements he cites as a member of the board, Hefner is candid in his frustration with the school system's lack of academic progress, and he acknowledges that initiatives to improve performance have contributed to the condition of school system facilities - a condition so grave that more than $1 billion will be needed to correct the problem, according to the facilities master plan recently recommended by a Baton Rouge planning firm and adopted by the board. "We tried to improve student performance by pumping upwards of $16 million per year in the small class size initiative," he writes at one point in the questionnaire. "We did that at the expense of funding the repairs and renovations of our facilities. Scores have remained statistically flat."

It's a telling response - "at the expense of funding the repairs and renovations of our facilities" - and a theme that has emerged as a refrain over the last few weeks as The Independent's editorial board has spoken with personnel inside the central office as well as members of the community who are active in public education: The school board has historically underfunded the maintenance budget, sometimes using it like a rainy day fund. "A lot of people don't understand why we got to this point where the need is such as it is," Hefner says. The public has contributed to the problem as well, voting down sales tax propositions in 1992 and 2000 that would have funded maintenance and facilities. But the board reinforced the perception that facilities are not a priority a few weeks ago when it voted to pull $4.5 million from maintenance to purchase property for the career-tech high school, although Hefner anticipates planned maintenance projects from which the $4.5 million was drawn will get still get funded, albeit from different accounts.

The career-technical high school will bear the name of Dr. David Thibodaux, the late board member who died in a motorcycle wreck in 1997. It was Thibodaux who led the charge to lower the student-teacher ratio, which Hefner cites as a contributing factor in our deficient facilities.

"I was one of the board members who was pretty much against putting all that money into smaller class sizes, and I took a lot of political heat for it," Hefner recalls. "My thing is, you put the money into having the best teachers; a good teacher can handle 25, 30 kids and keep them at grade level. It's the quality of the teacher and not the quantity of kids in the classroom. The research is far more definitive on the positive aspects of a strong teacher in the classroom than the mixed research on class size. But that was a decision that was made by a majority of the board, and we moved forward."
Lowering the student-teacher ratio hasn't borne academic fruit - although it has birthed a proliferation of so-called "butler buildings" on school playgrounds as the need for extra classrooms exploded - and that no doubt made the board's recent decision to increase the ratio in response to budget shortfalls more palatable. "I'm hoping that this will actually be a turning point, that instead of using a shotgun approach as we did - lowering it for all grade levels - that we'll target it in the areas that the research says it does count, and that's in the lower grade levels, K through 4," Hefner says.

At the same time, Hefner has embraced academies and schools of choice, which have opened up academic options for thousands of parish students but have also placed incredible pressure on the transportation system; students can now apply for admission into schools of choice or academies that may be on the other side of the parish from their homes, far outside their traditional school zones, and the school system has to get them there. Consequently, the system's transportation budget has risen dramatically - from about $9.5 million in 2002 to almost $17 million in the recently adopted budget. But Hefner is confident that, given time, those programs will pay off through increased academic performance.

And he's also high on the future Thibodaux High School, which promises to relieve population pressure in the parish's five high schools and, he predicts, increase the parish's graduation rate by making school relevant. "The career and technical high school is going to address probably the last major segment of students who we have not really dealt with, and that's those kids who are more career oriented," Hefner says. "They may not have plans at this point to go to college. They're more hands-on. They know what they want to do, and we're running them through a college prep course which really doesn't fit what they want, so they're not really finding a lot of relevancy in it.

"A lot of our high schools are really overcrowded. So we can spend money to build more classrooms, but a comprehensive high school is probably going to end up pulling several hundred kids from each of those high schools. It will relieve the population at the high schools, and at the same time address the needs of some of our kids."

Five consecutive terms on the school board may seem an odd side vocation for a graduate of the old Fatima High School, but Mike Hefner's involvement with public education in Lafayette Parish is familial: His wife is a public-school teacher, and his children attended public schools in Lafayette. When he wasn't on the school board, he was involved in public education as a member of the now-defunct civic group Citizens for Public Education, an organization that he emphasizes with air quotation marks wasn't "a council watcher," a term of derision applied to individuals and groups perceived to be long on criticism and short on constructive cooperation.

Hefner supported the LPSS's withdrawal in March from the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council after it became evident that LaPESC may try to influence board elections. Comprising representatives of United Way, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, Concerned Citizens for Good Government, 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette and UL Lafayette, LaPESC was chaired at its inception by Cajundome Director Greg Davis, who has had an oftentimes publicly acrimonious relationship with the school board dating back to the early 2000s. At that time Davis was chamber chairman and helped broker a deal between the chamber and the school system in which the chamber agreed to endorse a tax proposition to fund teacher raises in exchange for the school system agreeing to academic performance goals. The tax passed, but neither side lived up to the terms of the deal - the school system has fallen far short of the performance goals, and the chamber has failed to monitor the school system's progress - and relations between the chamber and the school system have yet to fully recover.

"I don't have a real big problem with it other than some of the players who are in there I have a long history with," Hefner admits. "I guess I have some issues that they're in it to promote their agenda, they're in it for their own agenda; they're ignoring any factual information... I have no problem working with them if they truly want to help the school system improve - I have no problem with that at all. But some of things that I saw early on were, it was going to be a political advocacy group, not an education advocacy group."

Acknowledging the strain his chairmanship was fostering, Davis later resigned as LaPESC chair, and relations between the group and the school system have warmed.
Hefner jokes that he doesn't know what he'll do with himself on the first and third Wednesdays of every month - that's when the school board meets. But he'll be busy. In 2000 he opened a demographic firm, Geographic Planning & Demographic Services, and as one would expect the 2010 census has been a boon for demographers. His company consults with municipalities and government entities including school boards around the state that are getting set to redraw political districts to conform with census data.

The ramp up in business is a factor in his decision to leave the school board now. "It's part of it because I don't want that seat to be empty - it's not fair to the district, if I'm not there representing the district," he says. "If I asked them for the privilege of sitting in the seat, I need to be in that seat. I understand missing a meeting a year - one or two a year - I understand that happens, everybody understands that. But if I'm missing four or five meetings a year, that's not fair to the district."

His business travels around Louisiana have also given him a unique perspective on his own school system. "The last two or three years working with other school systems in the state, it's almost an embarrassment of riches what we have over here," he says. "The opportunities that we can provide here are like nothing in those other school systems; they just don't have the wherewithal."

After filling his father-in-law's unexpired term, Hefner ran in but lost the election for the next term, returned to private life for four years and then won the District 5 seat in 1990. He's been on the board ever since. But, he says, the time is right to step aside. "I feel like sometimes you can be on so long, you either get stale or you become an impediment," he explains. "I never wanted to be in that position - I'm not there yet, but I don't want to get to that point."

Watching Mike Hefner whisk around the curve on Jefferson Street headed north near Teche Drugs, the peach-colored sports car begins to make sense. It's just what a guy in his retirement might drive.

The Lafayette Parish School System hopes funding for its facilities master plan doesn't suffer the same fate as a similar plan 18 years ago.**

Almost 20 years ago, the Lafayette Parish School System sought to restore the luster and pride in the parish's deteriorating school buildings. Armed with a report from New York City firm Stanton Leggett detailing the need for new school buildings and a renovation program for its aging facilities, the school board asked parish voters to approve a sales tax dedicated to funding a facilities maintenance plan and was optimistic the initiative would pass. The general public felt differently: 77 percent of voters issued a resounding "no" vote on the proposal. That was 1992. In 2000, the school board tried again, with a .25 cent sales tax. That proposal was also shot down, this time with 60 percent of voters against it.

Now, in 2010, the school system finds itself in a similar predicament. It has done its homework, so to speak. Consulting firm CSRS out of Baton Rouge recently completed the year-long process of drafting a facilities master plan for the school system to follow in rehabilitating its time worn schools (the school board adopted the plan in May). But the 10-year plan comes with a hefty price tag, $1.1 billion, and the school board is faced with the daunting task of going back to voters with yet another tax proposal.

"I think all of us were a little taken aback by the projected costs," says school board Vice President Mike Hefner, noting that $1 billion equates to about three years' worth of the school board's general budget. Despite the cost, Hefner says he has "a lot of confidence that the [master plan] reflects what the community wants to see." The blueprint involves constructing or replacing 13 schools and renovating about a dozen others; CSRS' construction schedule is broken down into two phases, each of which will require approximately $600 million over five years. The cost estimates are based on construction beginning in early 2011 - CSRS advised that the school board promptly work toward establishing a revenue source, before costs go up. The firm estimated that a delay of six months would increase the price tag by some $43 million.

Hunter Beasley

But just how quickly the school system should put a tax proposal before voters, and in what form, is still being debated. CSRS recommended, based on input from community dialogue sessions, that the school board consider a 25-mill property tax, which would fully fund the initiative. (A 25-mill tax would equate to $192 a year or $16 a month for a resident with a home valued at $150,000). Sarah Walker, chair of the Community Coalition for Lafayette Schools, which headed up the dialogue sessions on the master plan, says she supports a property tax for schools, but, given the current economic climate, isn't sure now is the best time to put the issue to voters. "I'm really on the fence about the timing," she says. "With the drilling moratorium I think everybody's in a real wait and see mode. We all know what drilling is for this area and what it means for business here. I couldn't give you a clear answer yet as to when I think we should try to go for something like this."

Board members have also been discussing ways to reduce the size of the proposed tax. Hefner says a smaller property tax, in the range of 10 to 15 mills, could complete the program over a slightly longer time frame and be augmented with existing sales tax dollars that will be freed up in the next two years.

Board member Greg Awbrey, however, believes a 1-cent sales tax proposal would be an easier sell. "I know that a lot of people who want to bond things out want to go with a property tax," he says, "but in the climate that we're in right now, I think your better bet on getting something passed would be a sales tax. It'd be less revenue, and it would slow down the process, but if we go for something that people are going to disapprove of and not pass, then you're going to have nothing."

Board member Hunter Beasley, who prefers a more stable property tax funding mechanism, says the board has already got off on the wrong foot in making its case to the public. At the last board meeting, Beasley protested the board's decision to shift $4.5 million out of its capital improvements budget to purchase property for a new career and technical high school. "This sends the wrong picture to the public," he says. "The whole idea was to fix our crumbling schools, and now look what we're going to do. We're not waiting for some sort of funding mechanism from the public; we're pulling money out of capital improvements right now."

In other ways, the board has proceeded with head-spinning caution. It addressed CSRS' recommendation to form a citizens' oversight committee for the master plan by forming a committee to decide who should be on the citizens' oversight committee. With this pace, many board members are starting to question whether putting a tax proposition on the ballot this year may be too aggressive a timeline. The next three election dates that can be utilized are October and November of this year and April 2011 - the latter now seeming most likely.

Any ballot initiative will have to be readied and approved two months in advance of the election. Supporters of the tax will also need plenty of headway in order to wage a successful campaign to get the initiative passed. "There needs to be a lot of education done with the public," Walker says. "I've found that if you just ask them the simple question, Would you favor a property tax to fix our schools,' a lot of people step back and give you a look of distrust. Once I sit down and explain it to people, tell them the average cost per month and what we can get from that, they're amazed and they're very much in favor of that."  - Nathan Stubbs

After more than 50 years in education in Lafayette Parish, Ed Sam elects to retire.

If a career in education - more than 30 years as a teacher and administrator and 20 as a school board member - hadn't worked out, Ed Sam could probably have been a storyteller. The District 4 rep can spin a good tale.

His current favorite involves his first job as a principal - at Youngsville Negro Elementary School in the mid-50s. Sam still chuckles when he says the school's name. After the historic Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court case outlawing segregation, Sam got a call from the central office. "You got to take that Negro off the school," he recalls the superintendent's representative informing him.

It was a cosmetic change, removing the word "negro" from the school's name. The community, Sam recalls, named the school in honor of three black families who were active in education at the time: the Thibeauxs, the Lindons and the Greens. Green T. Lindon Elementary School is still serving Youngsville.

The 78-year-old announced his retirement recently, joining fellow elder statesman Mike Hefner in the queue to step down. Each began his first term on the school board in 1990. Both are currently the longest-serving members of the board. But where Hefner brought a varied business background to the board, Sam came directly from a long career in the Lafayette Parish School System, the vast majority of it the north Lafayette district where he lives, a district that is home to some of the most distressed schools in the parish.

"After 21 years on the board," he says, "I think that the position should be given to somebody else. We can only do so much. Let somebody with new ideas come in."
Sam also cites his wife's frail health in his decision to step down. "I'm needed at home," he adds.

Sam took a chance 20 years ago when he resigned his position as principal at then-Truman Elementary School. "I said to myself that, if I win this seat, I will work very, very hard to improve the education for the black children in Lafayette Parish. And I did, and the result was the present N.P. Moss school."

But Sam's sense of victory in getting a new facility in his district is counterbalanced by lingering disappointment in the closure of Vermilion Elementary, and by the acknowledgement that despite the parish attaining unitary status in its federal desegregation case, schools in his district like N.P. Moss Middle remain overwhelmingly black, and the schools persistently lag behind those in more affluent parts of the parish.

"It has been very frustrating for me," he admits, "and very frustrating for the people in the district and the people in Lafayette as a whole. But I guess we didn't have enough clout to do anything about it."

But he's proud of his service on the board and frames that service with the civil rights struggle as a backdrop. "Being elected vice president of the board as a black guy. Being elected president of the board as black guy - this was not the common thing to do." -WP