Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Will the new school board take our system to the top?

The success of Lafayette’s public schools is important to us all, and hopefully voter turnout will be strong for this Saturday’s school board election. The outcome will affect traditional bottom-line issues like stewardship of the system’s $380 million budget, workforce development, job growth and business recruitment, as well as broader community concerns that also impact business, like crime statistics and the rate of poverty in our parish.

For the first time in decades, endorsements will play a role. Our sister publication The Independent Weekly felt so strongly about the issues that it endorsed candidates for the first time in its seven-year history  (“Pick Six,” The Independent Weekly, Sept. 22). In his accompanying column, Managing Editor Walter Pierce explained that with the imminent selection of a new superintendent, the newspaper felt it was important to identify candidates who endorse reform, accountability and transparency and to encourage readers to support them.

The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce offered up its own first-ever endorsements via its newly-formed political action committee, EMPOWER PAC. In announcing the formation of the PAC, chamber Chair Dave Welch noted that while the organization has a great track record of working outside the system, times have changed: “We can’t be outside the process anymore.” The impact of the endorsements from both groups will be discussed and debated long after the election; what’s clear is that they helped define the issues and stirred voter interest on all sides.

Concurrently yet apart from the election, The United Way of Acadiana embarked on a series of community conversations about education in Lafayette Parish. With only six of them complete and perhaps a hundred more yet to take place, CEO Margaret Trahan says an early theme is already emerging. “People are ready to act, to work together and make good things happen [in our schools],” she reports. “They feel a little disconnected but are looking for ways to engage.”

Superintendent Burnell Lemoine is already set to channel this energy. He and his staff are ready to launch an impeccably timed program called 100+ Ways to Volunteer, beginning next week. It will open wide the doors of schools across the parish to all who want to help, including those with no children in the system. The initiative includes volunteer preparation and training, a “to do” list for every school and a follow-up assessment. Lemoine, who will retire next year, is hopeful that the 100+ Ways program will help improve student and school performance as well as the public’s perception of what’s happening inside LPSS classrooms. Successfully executed, 100+ Ways could be an important legacy for Lemoine and a powerful tool for his successor and the new board.

Is it a coincidence that in the wake of a school board election where meaningful issues were raised, interest in quality public education is on the rise? Or that just as a new school board takes office and the search for a new superintendent begins, the community wants to be hands-on in making its school system better? Perhaps, but this is a once-in-a-generation shot at creating a system that could rank among the top in the South, especially given the resources and affluence of our parish.

If we play our cards right, we can make this one election where everybody wins.

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