Before the month is over, Cade Brumley may by the next superintendent of public schools in Jefferson Parish, the biggest district in the state.
But on a winter night in 2013, as head of DeSoto Parish's public schools, Brumley was climbing into his Buick SUV for the 15-mile drive to the tiny community of Pelican, Louisiana, meandering though the piney woods and beef ranches south of Shreveport on his way to a difficult evening.
He was headed for a public gathering inside the gymnasium at Pelican All Saints, a school attended mainly by poor black students. From a high of about 700 pupils in the 1970s in kindergarten through 12th grade, it had dwindled to just 161. The state had slapped it with a "failing" label because of low test scores and graduation rates.
"There were five students in the first grade," Brumley recalled.
Making matters worse, the DeSoto school system was in crisis, with the fracking boom that underpinned the local economy having gone bust, the district running a $600,000 monthly budget deficit and Brumley worried about making payroll. He couldn't afford to keep open a school that was enrolling so few students and producing such poor results.
So he was heading to Pelican to explain why he was shutting the school down, knowing he was going to be confronted by an angry community.
"I felt it was important ... that I invite the entire school community to meet with me so I could share the rationale ... but also how I wanted to give their kids a better chance to be successful," he said.
Five years later, it is difficult to find someone in DeSoto Parish who still holds a grudge against Brumley for the hard decisions he made in those days. And there were many. He had to downsize the school system in a big way, with revenue dropping by 38 percent from 2012, scores of employees laid off and several schools merged or closed.
At the same time, the system's academic performance has only improved. It achieved its first overall A rating in 2016 and kept it there in 2017. The graduation rate is in the mid-90s, and Brumley said he is especially proud that it's roughly equal for white and minority students.
Ronnie Morris, the pastor of Higher Ground Ministries, a black congregation in the parish seat of Mansfield, said opposition to closing Pelican has faded as the results became clear.
"At first I was totally against the closing of Pelican," he said. "But after years of seeing the kids enter other schools — they were happy at a school with more opportunities."
It may have helped with community relations that Brumley comes from someplace similar: the village of Converse, in nearby Sabine Parish. His father was a police officer and his mother worked in the school cafeteria.
He went on to get a bachelor's degree at Northwestern State, a master's degree at LSU Shreveport and a doctorate at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Before coming to the DeSoto Parish schools as an assistant superintendent in 2011, he had worked as a teacher, coach and principal in Sabine Parish.
Whatever success he has had so far, however, his next challenge will be a much bigger one.
For months now, Brumley has been widely considered the favorite for the job of superintendent in Jefferson Parish, and when applications were submitted last month, his was one of just two. This week, the other candidate withdrew after questions were raised about his certification.
On Monday, the parish School Board will meet to publicly interview Brumley and then vote on whether to hire him as a replacement for Isaac Joseph, whose contract was not renewed and whose last day was Wednesday.
In many ways, the two men are a stark contrast. Joseph was the system's first African-American superintendent; Brumley is white. Joseph was a Jefferson Parish public school lifer, with more than 30 years of experience in the system. Brumley is just 37 years old. Joseph's elevation to the top job was pushed by the board's more union-friendly wing; Brumley is favored by the business-backed faction.
But that doesn't mean Brumley will represent a total about-face. For instance, last fall, Joseph pushed for a property tax increase to help fund employee pay raises. In an interview this week, Brumley said he also thinks parish teachers need more money.
"The Jefferson school community has got to find a way to address the teacher pay issue," he said. "I don't know how the system can reach its potential with the teacher pay issue as it stands now."
Also like Joseph, Brumley said the system needs to develop a plan to deal with deteriorating school buildings.
"My concerns with aging facilities are that students deserve nice facilities," he said. "It's wasting money putting band-aids on crumbling facilities, and older buildings were not built to control access."
Brumley is also somewhat associated with another previous Jefferson school superintendent: James Meza.
Meza preceded Joseph and helped bring the parish's school system from a D to a B in state rankings but also didn't shy from making controversial decisions.
Brumley and Meza met while both were superintendents. Later, when Brumley and other school chiefs helped form a training program for aspiring superintendents, they tapped Meza to lead it.
Brumley called Meza "a friend" and said he admired how relentless he was in his efforts to raise test scores. But he said he doesn't share Meza's leadership style, which often struck opponents as abrasive.
"My leadership style does not align with Dr. Meza's. I would say I am probably not as" — he paused — "aggressive as Dr. Meza."
That self-evaluation was backed up by Lori Gurley, who is president of the DeSoto Parish chapter of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. "He's been good about reaching out," she said.
During the tough financial times early in Brumley's tenure, teacher pay cuts were on the table. That did not sit well with union members, Gurley said. "He was more than happy to sit down with groups and take questions," she said. "That couldn't have been comfortable for him."
She also praised his public persona — Brumley maintains an active and upbeat Twitter account — and said that his willingness to offer public praise to teachers, employees and students helped boost morale.
That doesn't mean, she said, that the two have always agreed. But Brumley was always willing to listen, she said.
Morris, the local pastor, said Brumley asked to meet with him right after taking over as superintendent. "He said, 'I want to know you and I want you to know me,' " Morris said.
Brumley gave him his personal cellphone number and said he would rather talk things out at a private meeting than shout them out at a School Board meeting, Morris said.
Morris also noted that Brumley — who is open about his Christianity and serves as a deacon at a Southern Baptist church in Shreveport — started an organization of pastors called Leaders of Faith and has met regularly with pastors in different parts of the parish.
Word of Brumley's possible departure was not a surprise, said DeSoto Parish School Board President Dudley Glenn.
"We're awfully proud of the work he's done," Glenn said.
Glenn said Brumley walked into a bad situation in DeSoto and immediately set about making it better.
"We charged him with getting the finances in order and getting us back on track," Glenn said. "He did that. It was difficult."
The system will also miss Brumley's wife, who is a guidance counselor, Glenn said. One comfort: Glenn said Brumley has set up a good leadership team, and Glenn is confident the system will be able to find a qualified replacement.
That may have to be soon. If chosen, Brumley hopes to start working in Jefferson Parish before the end of March, saying there is plenty to do to get the school system ready for the 2018-19 school year.
But Glenn is still sad to see Brumley go.
"We wish him godspeed," he said. "We're crying in our own beer."