Sparks flew at the first full meeting of the Vermilion Parish School Board since the arrest of teacher Deyshia Hargrave at the last meeting caused widespread outrage and directed national media attention on the rural district.
Absent from the meeting was Anthony Fontana, the now-resigned board president whose defiance and whose remarks toward Hargrave in the immediate aftermath of the arrest fanned the flames. Stacy Landry, who was elected to replace Fontana as board president, pleaded with fellow board members to work cooperatively.
“I don’t want to hear ‘they’ and ‘us;’ it’s ‘we’,” Landry said in his first public comments as president. “This is not a divided board.”
That proved untrue, however, as the board considered whether to rescind Superintendent Jerome Puyau’s contract, which it had approved in a 5-3 vote in a special meeting Jan. 8. The rescission motion failed on a 4-3 vote, although not before tense arguments.
Board member Kibbie Pillette, who moved to rescind the contract, angrily said he hadn’t been allowed to weigh the contract terms until after they were negotiated secretively among Fontana, Puyau and the board’s attorney.
“I never had the opportunity to negotiate; I certainly didn’t have the opportunity to decide what the compensation would be,” Pillette said, his voice rising, prompting Landry to pound the gavel and tell him to stop.
The attorney, Woody Woodruff, said versions of the contract had been delivered to board members weeks before the final vote, and urged them not rescind.
“I can’t tell you it’s OK to dishonor a contract that’s been granted and executed,” Woodruff said.
Many Vermilion Parish teachers, who have not received raises in years, have objected to Puyau’s contract because it provides for a raise from $110,000 to $140,000 a year. Hargrave, channeling those concerns, criticized Puyau at the Jan. 8 meeting for accepting the raise.
Puyau had begun to respond to Hargrave but was cut off when Abbeville City Marshal officer Reginald Hilts confronted Hargrave and ordered her to leave. Hargrave complied, but Hilts forcefully handcuffed her as she left, and the teacher was booked on charges the city attorney later declined to prosecute.
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Video of the incident garnered millions of views over three chaotic days, during which Hargrave went from outspoken local teacher to international celebrity. Puyau tearfully expressed remorse on national television, saying he should have insisted Hargrave be allowed to speak. Fontana took a different approach: He never apologized, praised the marshal and referred to Hargrave in an interview as a “poor little woman.” On Jan. 12, hundreds of people —some with signs mocking Fontana’s remark — attended a rally in support of Hargrave in downtown Abbeville.
At Thursday's board meeting, Betty Girouard, a retired teacher and former president of the Vermilion Association of Educators, recalled negotiating with board attorney Woodruff during a teacher strike 30 years ago. She cautioned the board that some of the causes of current discontent among the district’s teachers are similar to what existed then.
“I’m very concerned,” Girouard said. “I hate to see where the board and the employees do not get along, and are on different sides.”