The past year for the Lafayette Parish School Board was a lot tamer than it was in 2014, when frequent dramatic outbursts erupted as the board engaged in a protracted battle with then-Superintendent Pat Cooper that eventually lead to Cooper’s dismissal.
The new year in 2015 ushered in new board members with a big to-do list requiring serious attention. The tasks facing the board included hiring a new superintendent, overseeing a funded construction program to address the problem of overcrowded schools in south Lafayette Parish and preparing a new tax for the 2016 spring ballot to repair, build and maintain other schools.
The nine members, elected in 2014, ended the first year of their term on a productive note, deciding at the final meeting in December to bring a new tax millage to voters and next week will get the first glimpse of the proposed attendance zone for the first new high school to be built in the district in more than 50 years, one of the already funded projects.
School Board President Tommy Angelle pronounced it a good year.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of is the overall cooperation among board members and our employees — not necessarily agreeing on every thing every time, but a cooperative effort to take an issue, consider it and moving forward,” Angelle said.
Angelle and Tehmi Chassion were re-elected to the board, and with the other five newly elected members will serve a five-year term because of legislation that moved the election cycle of the board so it coincides with the gubernatorial election.
Angelle and Chassion were part of the prior board that voted in November 2014 to fire Cooper, who has challenged that decision in court. He lost at the district court level but is appealing.
The divisiveness between Cooper and some board members often led to contentious public meetings and a power struggle over the budget. The budget process for 2015 was not as memorable — though there was belt-tightening, with more expected to come in 2016.
“It will not be a good financial year for the board,” said Superintendent Donald Aguillard. “We anticipate another budget cycle where the deficit will be a big ugly number.”
Aguillard took over as superintendent in May and there hasn’t been any obvious public friction among him and board members as was the case with Cooper. Aguillard and his staff have devised a strategic plan — Vision 2020 — that addresses both facility and academic needs with plans to expand early childhood education classes and enhance classroom instruction.
“I do think that we’ll become an A school district and that Dr. Aguillard will get us there, but it’s going to take time,” said Dawn Morris, the board’s vice president.
Morris said Aguillard is addressing what some call the “achievement gap” separating students and there’s a lot of excitement about the appointment of the school district’s first school improvement administrator, Irma Trosclair.
Trosclair will work directly with the school system’s lowest performing elementary schools — Carencro Heights, Boucher and J.W. Faulk.
“I’m excited to see what will happen in the course of a year at those schools,” Morris said.
Community groups have also noticed the productive changes in the past year.
“The working relationship is clearly a lot better,” said Kathleen Schott Espinoza, of Power of Public Education Lafayette. “They’re proving that they’re getting things done and they’re moving forward.”
Espinoza said her organization is focused on finding support for legislation to change the state’s letter grade accountability system, as well as the monitoring of charter schools to ensure they meet diversity requirements.
“We don’t think the current accountability system is adequate” she said. “We feel that it’s not a fair grading system and it says very little about what a school is doing.”
The Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council, another local organization, will keep an eye on Baton Rouge, as well to ensure that the high standards of accountability remain in place during the change of leadership in the Governor’s Office and on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Jay Jackson, the organization’s chairman.
The organization’s membership includes community and business groups.
Neither organization has taken a stance yet on the tax proposal. Jackson said his membership is in agreement that additional revenues are needed but hasn’t reached a conclusion on the structure of the proposed tax issue.
While there are facility needs in the school system, Jackson said, his group also wants to see equal emphasis placed on classroom instruction and support of positive school culture. He said the group will also push for the expansion of a leadership development program called Leader in Me that’s helped transform low-performing schools.
Aguillard said one change in 2016-17 could lead to four more instructional days for students on the 2016-17 school calendar. “We need that time to better prepare students for testing,” he said.
More professional development for teachers and extended learning opportunities for students are also part of the strategic plan, Aguillard said. He said staff is considering an extended learning day similar to one implemented in St. Mary Parish, where Aguillard previously served superintendent. There, students not on grade level were provided the option to stay after school for additional instruction and they received bus transportation.
“It allowed us to address our overage population,” Aguillard said. “Lafayette’s done a good job with that, but we still need additional support and are also creating a robust summer school program. Here, kids pay for summer school, but what happens is the kid whose family can’t afford it is penalized, so we’re looking at extended learning as an option.”
Morris, the board’s vice president, said the upcoming year will present its own challenges as a new governor takes office and there is a potential turnover in leadership at the Louisiana Department of Education.
“We also have new federal legislation that’s changed No Child Left Behind and put more control in local hands. We have all of that leading us into the new year and that could result in quite a few changes,” she said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.