It’s been 11 years since Donald Aguillard was part of the Lafayette Parish School System’s administration, but the educator isn’t carefully wading into the water as he begins his job as the parish’s chief educational leader.
He’s jumping right in.
The School Board made Aguillard, 60, its unanimous choice for superintendent on April 22. He quickly set about the task of meeting with staff, leading to a major pitch on his first day on the job May 18 to build a new high school to be financed through the board’s bonding capacity.
He’s also proposed a reorganization plan he says will save $300,000 in central office staffing and started working on a comprehensive new zoning plan to help balance student populations.
Straight-talking and soft-spoken, Aguillard hasn’t shied from talking taxes — saying community support will be needed to address aging and crowded schools.
“My sincere hope is that the board would be ready in 2016 to develop a proposition for voter consideration. I don’t see any other way to improve facilities,” he said.
Prior to his appointment as Lafayette’s top educator, Aguillard led St. Mary Parish Schools as superintendent. He began his career in Lafayette Parish, where he spent nearly 30 years as a teacher and administrator.
Aguillard said he’s been humbled by well-wishers excited for his return to Lafayette Parish.
“I see this as an opportunity for me to try to help Lafayette become an A school district,” he said. “That’s my motivation. I believe this parish can and will become an A school district, and if we do the right things, it shouldn’t take more than three or four years to get there.”
The school system now has a B letter grade based on the state’s accountability system. To improve district performance, Aguillard said he plans in the coming months to focus on initiatives for struggling students; curbing transportation and legal costs; and providing training for principals to ensure they spend more time in the classroom supporting teachers.
A hard look at transportation costs is needed, he said. Staff has proposed relocating some English as a Second Language services to reduce transportation costs and also will review the placement of schools-of-choice academies, which allow students to attend specialized instruction outside of their school zone, he said.
“We’re spending $20 million transporting students,” he said. “If we could shave even half a million dollars, we could redeploy that money back into the classroom.”
Aguillard said he also wants to focus on school leaders through a summer leadership program for principals.
“I want them to become true instructional leaders with a goal of spending 50 percent of their day in classrooms,” Aguillard said.
This summer, Aguillard and his staff will also work on a plan for the district’s overage students. These are students who are academically two or more years behind their peers. The district has attempted several initiatives in the past to target overage students, and the current effort involves shifting them to their age-appropriate campuses.
Aguillard said he wants to see the district’s D and F labeled schools implement a reading intervention program called Fast ForWord to help students struggling with literacy. He said the school system has 15 licenses for the program, though it’s only being used in two schools. He said the program was successful with students in St. Mary Parish.
“If we can fix those literacy problems early on for children, they stay on track to be successful,” he said.
He also wants the school system poised to compete with charter schools that have moved into the parish and recoup the state per-student funding that’s following students whose parents choose the charter schools.
“We’ve got to compete,” he said. “Parents have options. We have outstanding programs in Lafayette Parish, and I think we have to market ourselves and show that our programs are effective and exciting.”
Aguillard replaces interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeune, who will stay in his role working on special projects for Aguillard until his retirement this summer. LeJeune was appointed in November, following the termination of Pat Cooper, a charismatic leader who lost the favor of a majority of the board over its objections to some of his management decisions. The tug-of-war led to court challenges, with Cooper’s own legal challenge of his termination still pending in state district court.
Only two of the current nine-member board members who ousted Cooper are now on the board. In his experience working with school boards, Aguillard said, transparency and open conversations are key — two traits he’s witnessed already in working with the Lafayette Parish School Board.
During Wednesday’s board meeting, board member Erick Knezek requested Aguillard and his staff prepare a needs-based budget for the ESL program, rather than a penny-pinching proposal that funds a minimal expansion of services.
“He said, ‘Bring us back what you really need,’ ” Aguillard said of Knezek. “I think if we have those open dialogues where they allow me to make recommendations and challenge me to come back and give more information, I’m OK with instances where they simply cannot or may not decide to adopt one of my recommendations. I think the whole process is to be open and transparent.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.