Lafayette’s new superintendent wants the school system to get between students and illegal drug use.
By Heather Miller

This story is the second in a two-part series on Pat Cooper’s turnaround plan.

For every 300 students drug tested in the Central Community School System in East Baton Rouge Parish, five test positive for illegal substances, according to a September 2010 report from Baton Rouge’s WBRZ. Whether that number is lower in Lafayette Parish middle and high schools will likely be a calculable statistic by next year, as Superintendent Pat Cooper has included in his six-year district turnaround plan a pilot program for random drug testing in the district.

Under Cooper’s plan to transform LPSS from the “C” district it currently is to the “A” district he envisions, middle and high school students whose parents sign a consent form would be subjected to random drug tests that could extend throughout their entire school careers — depending on whether they test positive. Cooper’s plan, which he has implemented in other school districts where he served as super, calls for any student who tests positive for drugs even once to be drug tested for the duration of the student’s stay in Lafayette Parish schools.

All students involved in athletics or other extracurricular activities would be required to submit to a drug test if asked.

Contrary to the initial reactions of many, the drug testing program included in Cooper’s plan is not designed to push drug-addicted students out of the system. It’s actually meant to do just the opposite, he says.

“At first, people think a drug policy is going to be punitive,” Cooper says. “What we’re trying to do is identify kids that are users and put them into programs that can get them off of drugs, certainly not throw them out of school. That’s the worst thing we can do. Once parents see this and begin to trust this, they’re on board.”

According to WBRZ, Central School District’s drug testing policy, which targets students involved in extracurricular activities and students who drive to school, has sparked its share of controversy at a few board meetings. The Central School Board briefly suspended the program in September 2010 after a switch from urine samples to hair testing, which traces substances in students as far back as 30 and 90 days, respectively. The hair samples caused an uproar from parents who said their children “returned home with too much hair missing and confusing consent forms,” WBRZ reports. Schools in Central returned to urine samples after just a few weeks.

But drug testing in Lafayette Parish middle and high schools, under Cooper’s plan, would be available for any parent who suspects his or her child of abusing illegal substances, not just athletes, club members and those who drive to school. Cooper says all a parent has to do to have his or her child drug tested is ask. The school system will take care of the rest.

“We say if you think your kid’s on drugs, bring him over here and we’ll test him. And then we’ll tell you, yes they’re on drugs. You need to do something about it,” Cooper said during a public forum held in April to discuss the turnaround plan. “And then if you don’t want to do something about it we’ll help you. We’ll have the drug counselors. Parents need help sometimes.”

The drug testing policy Cooper plans to present to the board before the start of the next school year would be a costly undertaking if the school system tried to fund it without outside help. That’s why Cooper is planning to go before the Lafayette Parish Youth Planning Board, a body with representation from several agencies in the parish — the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, social workers employed by the state, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office — or “anyone in the parish who works with youth.”

“In places where we have done this, the juvenile court programs, police department, sheriff’s office and the city have all been willing to assist,” Cooper explains. “I want to take it to that youth planning board and say, ‘This is what we’d like to do in the schools; would you help us because it would be a benefit to everybody in the community if we can get this in place?’ We’re not trying to invent something on our own. It needs to be something that will fit within the context of what these agencies are doing. The size of the pilot will depend on what help we get from other agencies. We definitely want to put the policy in place and get started on this if the board is willing.”

The coming together of public agencies for help in both crafting and funding the district’s turnaround plan is an underlying theme in several of Cooper’s initiatives — and yet another example of Cooper’s outside-the-box thinking that has proven so successful in other school districts he has overseen.

Cooper’s model of expanding health and wellness services available to both students and faculty at every school in the district, a key component of his vision for Lafayette Parish, will be piloted next year at six schools if everything goes according to plan. The staffing needs for Cooper’s health and wellness services — more school nurses, mental health professionals, etc. — are expected to come from other government agencies, and much of the additional staff should be paid for by state Medicaid reimbursement dollars, Cooper says.

For those who believe the school system’s initiatives are “going too far,” as Cooper says when referencing the naysayers, he has the same answer every time.

“Yes, families ought to be doing a lot of stuff. Parents ought to be doing a lot of stuff,” Cooper told school board members in his final interview for the superintendent’s job. “The reality is they’re not. Maybe they can’t. Those kids are still showing up at school ... Whether it’s black or white, we have to really do some soul searching about the social services aspect.

“We’re going to take those ‘F’ and ‘D’ schools and we’re going to flood them,” Cooper said during the community forum held in April at Thibodaux Tech High School. “They’re going to have a full team, a full-time nurse, a full-time therapist, a contracted psychologist and whatever else we need.”

With the exact dollar amount for Cooper’s first-year phase of the plan still unclear, he needs all the financial help he can get to implement the initiatives he’s outlined while still keeping his promise of not asking taxpayers for more money until he can prove to stakeholders that LPSS is worthy of receiving more public dollars.

Cooper, speaking to a crowded cafetorium of stakeholders and media outlets in April on how to pay for the comprehensive turnaround plan, floated his most unexpected idea yet to funnel additional revenue to our schools: “creating a blue ribbon committee to begin the process of reassessing property values so that all property is valued at true worth and taxed accordingly.”

“This would probably solve the school system’s money issues while bringing fairness to taxpayers,” he told the audience.

And it turns out the school system’s “money issues” when it comes to property tax collections are clearer now than they have been in years past. According to LPSS Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry, the school system is slated to lose roughly $2 million in state funding this year because the state, in its formula for determining per-pupil funding given to each district, calculates an average of what it believes each parish should be collecting in property taxes. Lafayette Parish’s tax base has grown, Guidry says. Its property tax collections, however, have not.

“Where we really feel it is that the calculation assumes that because we have that large tax base we’re getting the benefit of it,” Guidry says.

Although Guidry maintains that the bigger issue when it comes to school funding and property taxes is Lafayette Parish’s considerably low millage rate (Lafayette Parish has the lowest tax rate of any metropolitan parish in the state, also ranking 46th in property tax rates out of the 68 school districts in the state), he sees the obvious potential benefits a thorough reassessment could bring to the district.

“It’s going to help us generate the local dollars that the state formula assumes we’re generating,” Guidry says.

One of the most remarkable feats for Cooper in creating an achievement plan for the district is how quickly he was able to bring outside stakeholders, educators, city officials and others together to unify the cause.

The minimal pushback he’s been receiving from the get-go has primarily come from the same four Lafayette Parish School Board members who banded together to prevent Cooper from taking over as superintendent. Memo to board members Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux and Rae Trahan: It didn’t work.

Even the overwhelming community-wide support for Cooper and his initiatives hasn’t stopped the Sore Four from continuing their pattern of flaw-finding with almost every aspect of Cooper’s plan. The board members who chastise Cooper’s plan for not being fiscally responsible and not having a budget in place before presenting it are the same board members who dog Cooper’s central office reorganization plan, which Cooper estimates will save the school system $2.6 million.

It’s an opposition Cooper is eager to overcome.

“I know we still get 5-4 votes, and I’m going to take responsibility for that,” Cooper said at the end of a recent school board meeting, according to The Advertiser. “As superintendent, it’s my job to reach out to you to see how we can come to some agreement.”

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