In an unprecedented public showing, the business community gets behind the turnaround plan and the man trying to make it happen. Photos by Robin May

 
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More than 30 of Lafayette’s most respected business and community leaders gathered at the Lafayette Parish School Board meeting April 3 to publicly voice their support for Superintendent Pat Cooper’s five-year turnaround plan that aims to turn our C district into an A district. At issue that night, and a big reason for the unprecedented show of support (the crowd overflowed into the lobby), was a proposed board reprimand of Cooper for allegedly violating district policy by hiring Thad Welch as a special assistant to oversee maintenance and facilities even though Welch does not have a high school diploma. A high school diploma is required for the job, although education gets only 8 percent of the weight in hiring. Cooper has long maintained he did not know about Welch’s lack of a diploma until after he had been interviewed by a committee and recommended for the position. The superintendent remains adamant no policy was broken.

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Pat Trahan, IberiaBank
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Bruce Conque, Lafayette Chamber
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Zachary Barker, Acadiana Sports Leagues
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Melvin Ceasar, 100 Black Men
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Susannah Malbreaux, community activist
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Greg Davis, Cajundome and LaPESC
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Margaret Trahan, United Way and LaPESC
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Allyson Pharr, Lafayette Chamber
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Robbie Bush, Acadiana Travel
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Levi Wright, LPSS teacher

Businessman and philanthropist Nick Pugh of the Pugh Family Foundation, founded in 2000 to support nonprofit organizations that address education and anti-poverty in Acadiana, stressed the need for the board to turn its attention to the under-performing schools in the district. “I think where the rub is, is how do we get from where we are to where we would like to be?” he asked. “My hope is that the board and the administration figure out how to put this fire out that’s burning. It’s my hope that you guys, just reasonable people, can have reasonable ideas and think about the kids first, and can find solutions.”

Pugh’s appeal and that of so many who came before and after him, however, fell on deaf ears: after the marathon meeting, the board voted 6-3 to reprimand Cooper over the hire (it should be noted that many of those who spoke stayed for the duration of the nearly seven-hour meeting so they could be present for the vote). Voting with Greg Awbrey, who pushed for the reprimand, were Tehmi Chassion, Mark Allen Babineaux, Tommy Angelle, Hunter Beasley and Rae Trahan. Against it were Kermit Bouillion, Mark Cockerham and Shelton Cobb.

The community support prompted another type of response no one could have imagined from board member Chassion, who characterized it as a “PR stunt” and “dog-and-pony show.”

Pat Trahan’s compelling address to the board, reproduced below, were slightly abbreviated for the school board meeting due to time constraints). Trahan is vice chairman of the Lafayette market for IberiaBank.

I don’t think I have to tell you a whole lot about the scope of our bank and the impact that our bank has in this community. Like others here, I also wear many hats and work with other organizations. I serve on the board of Bridge Ministry of Acadiana, which does great work with underprivileged kids in the Four Corners area. I serve on the board of Lafayette Catholic Service Centers, which operates St. Joseph Diner and other agencies that serve the poorest of the poor. I am on the board of Holy Family Catholic School, a high poverty school located off of Cameron Street not far from Bridge Ministry. I am also chairman of the Downtown Development Authority. Every one of these agencies and all of my volunteer activities that I spend a lot of personal time and frankly a lot of bank time on are in the 70501 zip code — District 3. I work in District 3. I live in District 3.

So why am I here? I have lots of reasons, but the biggest reason is my biggest pet peeve. I can’t stand it when I see underprivileged kids who don’t have access to the same opportunities that privileged kids have. What I call the access to quality education gap in this parish keeps getting wider and wider. We’ve got plenty of quality private school options for economically privileged kids. Thank God we have some good options for academically gifted kids in the public school system. The privileged kids and gifted kids will get theirs. We keep building institutions, private schools and even public schools all over the fringes of the parish to take good care of privileged kids.

But what about our underprivileged kids? What about the kids living in the urban core of Lafayette? These kids rely desperately on the institution of public education to give them access to a quality education and a way out of poverty. We are allowing this institution and others institutions that the poor rely on to deteriorate and go without new investment and high standards and expectations. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re gonna keep getting what we’re getting. If we work to preserve the status quo as previous boards and administrations have, we will continue to starve our schools of needed resources, especially those in the core. We need to implement a bold turnaround plan to reverse some negative trends and give all kids more equal access to a quality education.   

Here in Lafayette we continue to show up on list after list of “Best Of.” People from all over the state, the country and even the world recognize various outstanding qualities of Lafayette, its culture and its people. These attributes have developed over many years, and we certainly have lots of positive momentum as an economy and as a community. We are seen as a lively and  progressive place to work, live and raise a family.  

However, one area where we have not shown progress in the last 15 years especially relative to other communities is in the performance of our school system. Our rankings in student achievement and outcomes have been going in the wrong direction during this time of great prosperity and achievement in so many other areas.

Now Dr. Cooper is certainly not responsible for this slide and neither is this present board as a body responsible. However, what Dr. Cooper and present board members are responsible for is to ensure that we embrace and implement changes that will move us move toward higher achievement and better outcomes. We can’t go back to the practices of the past that caused us to lose so much ground relative to other communities.  

We are beginning to hear stories of present board members engaging in micro-management and second guessing on school campuses. Please don’t go there. We’ve seen this movie before, and it does not have a happy ending. The time for individual board members to aggressively represent their constituents and register their disagreement with a policy or plan is before the decision is made and the boat has left the dock. Once the boat has left the dock, we all need to be paddling in the same direction.  

Once the course has been set, the appropriate role for individual board members is to show good leadership in their districts by supporting and selling the plan approved by the body as a whole … even if they were on the losing end of a close vote. To continue to rehash and aggressively represent constituents and advocate your own position after the decision is made is like a prize fighter continuing to throw punches after the bell has rung. The business community, the philanthropic community and the caring community will and must hold board members accountable for letting Dr. Cooper and the principals do the jobs they were trained and hired to do with only appropriate oversight from the board as a body.            

Board insight on the front end and oversight on the back end is needed and valued, but we can’t return to the past practices of micro-management from the board or individual board members. This is the problem that Dr. Cooper was hired to [do] and board members were elected to solve. We have lots of ground to make up because of past practices, but we also have many tremendous opportunities ahead of us to produce excellent educational outcomes. Let’s not return to the practices and performance of the past. — Pat Trahan

 


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