Cover Story

Pick Six

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Breaking with our long-standing policy, The Independent Weekly endorses candidates for Lafayette Parish School Board.

Photos by Robin May

Hunter Beasley, Thomas Brown, Tehmi Chassion, Greg Davis, Dean Landry and Dudley LaBauve deserve seats on the Lafayette Parish School Board.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Breaking with our long-standing policy, The Independent Weekly endorses candidates for Lafayette Parish School Board.

Photos by Robin May

Hunter Beasley, Thomas Brown, Tehmi Chassion, Greg Davis, Dean Landry and Dudley LaBauve deserve seats on the Lafayette Parish School Board. Not because we say so, but because of who they are, and because of the positions they endorse. There are other capable candidates in the race to be sure - incumbents and challengers - but these six, we feel, are most likely to bring to the board the expertise and energy it needs, and they will renew the commitment to improving public education in Lafayette Parish that has largely gone unfulfilled by past boards and administrations.

These candidates comprise a diverse group. They are young and old, black and white. Two are working on their doctorates while another has only a high school diploma. They have backgrounds in public education and higher education, business, accounting and finance - the latter two, especially, are skill sets the board desperately needs in this era of declining tax revenue and pressing maintenance needs. Only one of them is an incumbent; the rest are venturing into politics for the first time. The résumés of a few are weighted with civic involvement while others have had no experience on boards or commissions, public or private.

What they share, in our view, is a commitment to the children in Lafayette public schools, to embracing the types of reform we believe can move the school system forward dramatically, and to a simple yet revolutionary idea: All children can learn, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds.

From a budget standpoint, public education is the second-largest civic enterprise in our parish behind city-parish government. With a roughly $380 million dollar budget drawn predominately from sales taxes and property taxes, it is an endeavor in which most of the citizens in the parish are shareholders, regardless of whether they have children in the school system, children in private school or no children at all. If you shop or own property in Lafayette Parish, you have a stake in the public school system. In fact, if you simply live in the parish and plan on remaining, you have a stake - the children in the school system today will be Lafayette's workforce tomorrow. They will be your neighbors, the custodians of the public infrastructure and the stewards of private enterprise.

From a social standpoint, public education is arguably our biggest civic endeavor, with about 30,000 students and several thousand teachers, administrators and support staff under its vast umbrella. We have to get this right. And while we applaud the school system's innovations over the last decade, we remain a very long way from where we should be in terms of student achievement.

Lafayette is the fifth most populous parish in Louisiana with the sixth-largest public school system. We are one of the more affluent parishes in the state, too. Yet out of 69 school systems in Louisiana, Lafayette ranks 22nd in district performance scores. That's the bottom of the top third. We believe Lafayette Parish public schools should be, at the very least, in the top 10. (There are 64 parishes in the state, but the cities of Monroe, Bogalusa, Baker, Central and Zachary have districts distinct from their parishes.)

Lafayette Parish teacher pay ranks 30th in the state, despite a 2001 half-cent sales tax that was dedicated to paying our educators in the top 10.

Our graduation rate is a shade under 68 percent, about a percentage point higher than the state average in a state that ranks 47th in the nation. Nine thousand of the 30,000 kids in the school system today will not graduate, although some of them will matriculate to street corners, the parish jail or the welfare rolls.

Years of deferred maintenance on our buildings have left us with more than $1 billion in needs, some of them critical needs that cannot be ignored.

All this is unacceptable. It threatens Lafayette's future prosperity, putting us on a trajectory that, until Hurricane Katrina, had doomed Orleans Parish and seems to be setting a tragically similar course for East Baton Rouge.

But it's not too late for Lafayette. In fact, we have before us on Oct. 2 an opportunity to change our course. Six seats are up for grabs on the school board, and the current superintendent has agreed to serve through the end of next year, with an opt-out clause allowing the contract to be vacated - by himself or the board - with 90 days notice. The next board will choose the next superintendent. It is an extraordinary opportunity of which we must take full advantage.

The six candidates we recommend - Beasley, Brown, Chassion, Davis, Landry and LaBauve - should be members of the Lafayette Parish School Board, and the superintendent they select should be a highly qualified candidate with a proven record of accomplishment who will run the school system as a chief executive should, taking the policy directives of the board and implementing them. The next board, in turn, should be a policy-making panel only, entrusting the superintendent, as the school system's chief executive officer, to accomplish those directives and holding the superintendent accountable while demanding transparency. As in any enterprise of this size and complexity, the new superintendent should have the responsibility and authority to hire and fire not only administrative staff but principals and teachers without interference from the board, as now required by state law. It is extremely important that the new board's role be focused on the formulation of policy that the superintendent implements - without this well-defined authority no candidate of true quality would even apply for the job of superintendent. To many of us this is an obvious and modern strategy that should have been adopted long ago, but to others comfortable with current board and superintendent roles there is no need for change. Think of it this way, no competent CEO, once tasked with a mission, would any more tolerate board interference than a great college football coach would allow a board of supervisors to interfere in the calling of plays.
We believe, as candidate Davis has asserted and as research has shown, that a 95 percent graduation rate and 95 percent grade-level performance are realistic goals that can be met within 12 years, and that the first priority of a new superintendent is to develop a plan to achieve these goals. Moreover, until an education plan is developed and begins to demonstrate incremental yet measurable success, the Lafayette Parish School System should live within its means, taking care of critical maintenance needs while focusing on educational improvement. Until the public's faith in the school system is restored, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect parish taxpayers to foot a more than $1 billion tab to repair and replace infrastructure - a tab accrued through years of neglect.

The performance of our public school system rises only as high as our expectations, and our expectations are low.
With the right board and the right superintendent, we can raise those expectations, and our children will rise to meet them.

Greg Davis
55 years old
No Party
Cajundome Director

If there is a more community-minded and civically engaged individual in Lafayette Parish, please step forward. Greg Davis is the epitome of involved.
He's been a scoutmaster and a Civic Cup winner; he is past president of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce; he currently serves on the boards of 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette, the Evangeline Area Boy Scout Council, the Council for a Better Louisiana, Education's Next Horizon, Lafayette Crime Stoppers, Lafayette Public Education Stakeholder Council, the chamber and Holy Rosary Development.

And he's been something of a gadfly when it comes to public education in Lafayette Parish or, to put it another way, the Lafayette Parish School System is no fan of Greg Davis. He stepped down as chairman of LaPESC earlier this year when it became evident that his leadership of the group was putting it at odds with the LPSS, of which he has been publicly critical for the last few years because of what he considers the system's stagnant performance.

And when it comes to public education, Davis' raison d'etre is the poor performance of low-income students in our public school system.

"I've lived in my district for 43 years," the Northside High and UL accounting graduate says. "So that means I'm living in the north Lafayette community for 43 years. And a lot of the deterioration that we're seeing in neighborhoods is occurring in the north Lafayette community, and a lot of that, I believe, comes from the significant number of dropouts we've had over the past 10-plus years, and the gross underachievement."

Davis, who vows to donate his $800 monthly school board pay to a mentoring program at N.P. Moss Middle School, has developed what he calls the "Four Cornerstones" for the school board: 1) Hire an experienced superintendent who embraces a reform agenda; 2) Develop an academic plan that will achieve a 95 percent graduation rate and 95 percent grade-level performance within 12 years; 3) Develop a business plan that supports the academic plan and allows the school system to live within its means; 4) Operate the school system with transparency and accountability.

And Davis believes it all begins by engaging the community.

"If I'm elected, I will be advocating that we start immediately a dialogue that will consist of those in the public school system and those of us in the community," he says. "And this community dialogue would be about discussing where we are today in public education in Lafayette Parish and where we all think we should be long-term, and hopefully come to a consensus."

Tehmi Chassion
29 years old
Pharmacist intern

Tehmi Chassion will be going full throttle until Oct. 2, and he might be extra busy on election day. Around his full-time job as a pharmacist intern - Chassion is completing his doctorate in pharmacy following course work at Xavier University in New Orleans - he is raising an 8-year-old daughter as well as his fiancée's 16-year-old brother, not to mention knocking on doors and pressing the flesh in District 4. But what really has Chassion apprehensive about election day aren't returns from the precincts; it's an arrival in the maternity ward - Chassion and his fiancée are expecting a baby, and the child is due Oct. 2.

"I'm telling her, Sweetie, look, either you got to squeeze it tight or just let it loose, but something's got to shake off either before the election or after,'' he jokes.

It's a rare dose of humor from the otherwise sober, business-like approach Chassion brings to his first campaign for political office. The former valedictorian at Northside High earned a bachelor of science degree in microbiology from LSU.

He will complete his pharmacy internship in 2011. He knows the value of hard work and study, and while he readily admits he doesn't have all the answers for improving the performance of public schools in Lafayette, he says he's a quick study and a fast learner.

Chassion has some pedigree for the board; his father, the late Tony Chassion, was the first black member of the LPSB. Since the elder Chassion's tenure on the board some three decades ago, schools in Chassion's district - particularly J.W. Faulk Elementary, N.P. Moss Middle and Northside High - have lagged further behind their counterparts in more affluent parts of Lafayette.

Chassion says he believes it's the entire community's responsibility to ensure academic success, and he knows his embrace of reform measures will rub some within the system and outside of it the wrong way.

"This is something where you're not going to get a lot of thanks," he admits. "No matter what decisions you make or what policies you set."

And Chassion realizes that serving on the school board is biting off a lot. But this confident young man wouldn't have it any other way.

"I will be busy, but I can't trust this to anybody else, I truly can't," he says. "We have entrusted it to certain groups of people, certain people individually, and those people have just let us down."

Dean Landry
49 years old
No party
Telehealth analyst/Acadian Ambulance

As chairman of Acadian's Employee Stock Ownership Committee for the past seven years, Dean Landry grew membership 25 percent and was recognized as Employee Stock Ownership Employee of the Year at the National ESOP Conference in Washington, D.C. Acadian also awarded paramedic and dispatcher Landry with its Acadian Pride Award for being "someone who is willing to lend a hand to co-workers; someone who goes above and beyond the call of duty and takes initiative in seeking ways to improve the job." That sort of team leadership and consensus building are what make Landry an ideal candidate for the Lafayette Parish School Board.

One observation has emerged from Landry's campaign alone: It will be hard for anyone to outwork him. Landry has been walking his district daily, as well as visiting his district's schools and meeting with central office staff to immerse himself in the issues. Already, he has produced an analysis showing that Lafayette Parish's rank, 22nd, among state school districts is tied to its percentage of qualified teachers and the amount it spends per pupil, $9,104. He's also raising important budgetary questions and promises to be one of the most accessible and outgoing members on the board.

"The thing that's helped me tremendously is visiting the schools," he says. "You have some of the principals that are saying, I wish a school board member would come by and see what we've got going on.' And that's something I plan to continue to do. I'm going to keep a website open, I've got it for my campaign, and I'm going to continue walking. You have to keep a pulse on the citizens instead of sitting back and saying, Well, this is going to be my agenda, this is how I see it.' They're paying for the school system. You need to represent them.

"I'm going to dedicate the next four years of my life to this," he adds. "I have the time, and I'm going to do it. And nobody's going to beat me on research."

Dudley LaBauve III
38 years old
No party
Owner, Merrimac Asset Management
As a financial planner of seven years with a business degree from UL, Dudley Labauve III brings the kind of insight sorely needed on any public board, especially one handling a $380 million annual budget. In his campaign, Labauve has raised several detailed questions regarding the high costs included in the school board's recently constructed Facilities Maintenance Plan. A fiscal conservative, Labauve believes that while the school system does need to address its aging facilities, the initiative needs to be properly prioritized and considered within a larger education plan.

"I think first of all we need to have an education plan," Labauve says, "because this is about education. Then we need to have a fiscal plan that supports the education plan within the current means of the school system budget. Once we've established an education plan that's available and accessible to the public, and a fiscal plan that we make available to the public, once we have those in place, then I think we look at a facilities master plan and move forward."

Labauve supports making the Lafayette Parish School System's budgeting process more transparent and less arcane, while closely monitoring every investment for its impact. He stresses the important connection Lafayette's public school system has with the local economy. "I invest money for people," he notes, "and a good school system or a very high performing school system will attract businesses, it will attract people to live in the area, and ultimately it attracts more wealth to the area, which in the long run is good for my business, and it's good for everyone in Lafayette. So my ulterior motive, if anyone questions an ulterior motive, is really for the success of the community and economic diversity."

Thomas Brown
63 years old
Principal, Immaculate Heart of Mary

With an extensive background in both education and community leadership, Thomas Brown represents an ideal school board candidate. Brown holds a master's degree in education and has worked in both public and private schools. He recently retired from the Lafayette Parish School System, where he worked for 35 years, serving as principal at three schools (Alice Boucher Elementary, Broussard Middle and Lafayette Middle) and rising to the position of area director where he oversaw management of 15 schools. Brown is in his second year as principal of the private school Immaculate Heart of Mary. He's also managed to be incredibly active in the community, serving as chairman of the Cajundome Commission and on the boards of directors for a slew of nonprofits, including United Way of Acadiana, Goodwill Industries, the Acadiana Symphony, Kiwanis Club Southwest, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, Lafayette General Medical Center, St. Thomas More High School and St. Pius Elementary School.

Despite all these credentials, Brown remains humble, open to new ideas and apolitical. "This is a service," he says. "I was reluctant about this, but it's been a great experience. I've been walking the street and meeting and talking with several people. All of it brings to mind how desperately we need some changes."

Brown says Lafayette is not satisfied with a school system that ranks 22nd in the state and has only a 67 percent graduation rate. He insists the right changes will start at the top when the board begins its search for Superintendent Burnell Lemoine's replacement (Lemoine is expected to retire next year). "I'd like to be a part of making the system better," Brown says. "The whole idea behind me getting in the race is that I'd like to see that we get the right type of superintendent and we get the right people in the school system who believe that all children can learn."

Hunter Beasley
53 years old
No Party
Instructor, College of Education, UL

Agraduate of the Lafayette Parish School System and a former special education teacher at Lafayette High who has gone on to get his master's in education and now teaches in UL's College of Education, Hunter Beasley is arguably the most qualified incumbent on the Lafayette Parish School Board. Despite being an insider of sorts, his institutional knowledge hasn't made him reticent to think outside the box or look to new ideas in solving problems. In fact, Beasley has been one of the more proactive members of the board in this regard, and admits to feeling frustrated by the bureaucracy that must be overcome in bringing about any change.

The UL instructor is one of the more prepared and thoughtful board members, with a strong command of the issues. He's also worked to engage the community, recently offering to serve as a school board liaison to the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholder Council. First and foremost for Beasley is the quality of education being delivered in our public schools. He's embraced calls from other candidates to work toward, in 12 years, obtaining a 95 percent graduation rate, along with having 95 percent of our students performing at or above grade level.

"For me, early intervention and early elementary [education] are extremely important," Beasley says. "We need to worry about high school, but I think we also need to focus really hard on early intervention and early elementary. We're already addressing it to some extent, but I think we could do more in our elementary schools."

Beasley advocates programs for struggling students that focus on what he calls "grade recovery."

"Instead of waiting for kids to fail a course," he says, "and then offer them something at the end of the school year, why don't we address it at the beginning. If they fail that first six weeks, why don't we try to help them then?"