Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Arlecia Hill’s decision to run for the school board should have been a simple matter. It’s not. By Don Allen

[Editor’s Note: While The Independent Weekly has endorsed Arlecia Hill’s opponent, incumbent Hunter Beasley, in the District 8 school board race, our interviews with Hill as well as her appearance at a Sept. 9 forum attended by an Independent staff member convinced us that she is genuinely concerned about and educated on the issues facing our school system. Were she running for the board in another district, it is entirely possible this newspaper would have readily endorsed her candidacy.]

Frank Stockton’s 1882 short story, “The Lady or the Tiger,” is an allegorical tale that has come to represent an unsolvable problem: A ruler’s daughter has fallen in love with a young man far below her station in life. To solve the dilemma, her angry father offers him a choice: Behind one door is a hungry tiger and certain death. Behind the other is a beautiful rival whom he must marry if he chooses that door. He looks to his lover for a sign — the lady or the tiger? The question is left unanswered.

Arlecia Hill, a 26-year-old third-grade teacher at Plantation Elementary in Lafayette, is facing two doors today. She must choose between the love of her professional life, teaching, and the sharp teeth of politics as a member of the Lafayette Parish School Board.

Either choice will result in regret. 

“After I’d signed the papers and qualified for the race, somebody said, ‘Oh, yeah, a teacher can’t be on the school board,’” remembers Hill. “Well, there’s nothing in the qualifications that says a teacher can’t run for school board, and I can’t get anyone in the system to tell me why not.”

She had decided to run for the seat — District 8 against incumbent Hunter Beasley — on the spur of the moment and qualified July 9, the last possible day. Hill also chose to get an official opinion, so on July 14 she called Louisiana’s attorney general for a ruling.
In the meantime, other campaigns were under way. Thirteen candidates were vying for a half-dozen seats on the board with three incumbents — Mark Allen Babineaux, Shelton J. Cobb and Rae Trahan — running unopposed. On Sept. 3, more than seven weeks after Hill’s initial query, the AG’s office cited a 1960 state law barring supervisors, principals, teachers and other employees from serving on the school board that employs them. The wording is somewhat vague as to exactly when the employee elected is to resign, but it is clear on one fact: If elected, you cannot teach.

“At the beginning of the school year, some parents who heard I was running asked if I was going to leave their children,” says Hill. “I just cannot honestly say right now. I have student loans that require me to teach, and they’re pulling me in one direction, but the issues that I see in the system are so dramatic, they’re pulling me in another. My heart is with teaching, but I know there’s so much that needs to be changed. But who would be able to afford that?”

Do the math. Hill’s annual salary at Plantation is around $36,000. The job and its compensation would be eliminated and replaced by a school board salary of $800 per month, an embarrassingly small amount in light of the board’s primary duties — developing long-range policies and planning for the fixture of the entire school system. Even if Hill had the grace of a few months between the Oct. 2 election and swearing-in ceremonies in January, she would still need to find either another teaching position — almost impossible after school has already begun — or another job outside of education.

“I love my kids,” she says. “I know what it’s like to leave in the middle of something because I’ve had to do it before, but it would be difficult for them. Plus it’s another transition that parents would have to deal with. People just have no idea what a teacher has to deal with on a daily basis, and that includes a multitude of things we have to do that have nothing to do with actual teaching. I’m not sure the majority of those problems can be fixed from within the system as a teacher.”

Hill knows there’s no guarantee she can fix anything as part of a nine-member elected committee either. But after almost six years in the Lafayette Parish School System — she was uprooted from Plantation after classes had begun in 2008 and moved to Ossun Elementary before being reassigned to Plantation the following year — Hill is convinced there are issues within the LPSS that are in need of repair and she can help.

“Teachers in other parts of the state were amazed that I would be displaced in the middle of the year. They don’t understand that kind of thinking when the system can’t make up its mind about the projected enrollment and then when it happens, the actual enrollment doesn’t match up. Are we getting more kids that quickly? Or are we using bad calculations or antiquated methods?

“In Lafayette Parish, VITA [Volunteer Instructors Teaching Adults] says that 24 percent of the population is illiterate, meaning that more than 10,000 people can’t find a number in a telephone book. Knowing that we have one of the largest school systems in Louisiana, how is this OK? How can I read these statistics and not want to see change on the school board?”

Hill has been atypical in her approach to politics: She’s spent no money on advertising, done no door-to-door campaigning and has relied strictly on free press coverage to get the word out. While she qualified for the seat with the best of intentions, she’s an admitted fish out of water in the political arena. But she counters any negatives with an insatiable and convincing desire to make a difference, a passion that voters can only hope for in every candidate.

Meanwhile there are questions that only Hill can answer. Does she spend her remaining time talking to as many people of District 8 as possible? Does she borrow money for advertising, and how can she pay it back without the job she’ll lose if she wins? Does she spend time looking for another job? Does she ask the registrar to take her name off the ballot? Can she financially survive if elected? Can she challenge the law?

There are other questions: Why does it take the AG’s office 52 days to research a law that’s been on the books for 50 years? Who exactly is that law protecting? Is there fear of a conflict of interest, even though a teacher and the board have the same interest at heart?
“How do I just let it go?” asks Hill. “How do I dedicate myself to the classroom for the rest of the year and not wonder what might have happened?”

The lady or the tiger?

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