August 1, 2012
By Heather Miller • Photos by Robin May
Inaccessible and ill-informed, District 9 School Board rep Rae Trahan’s tenure is best characterized by two words: Missing. Inaction.
“By the way, it’s nice to meet you. I think you’re the only board member I’ve never seen.”
When Lafayette Parish School Board member Rae Trahan asked Superintendent Pat Cooper a question during his final interview before the board more than seven months ago, his initial response to Trahan was more than a warning sign. Looking back, it was a bad omen.
Just hours before Cooper was selected to serve as the next superintendent of Lafayette Parish public schools, his preface to Trahan’s inquiry revealed that the District 9 board rep had not only failed to attend a single interview for the top 10 candidates who applied for the superintendent’s job — she was also the only board member who spoke not a single word to Cooper prior to his final interview. Cooper, a standout applicant from the start, had been named as a top 10 finalist two months before Trahan’s first exchange with him. He became one of three finalists for the position roughly four weeks before being named LPSS’s next super.
It shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to her fellow board members or the outside stakeholders who played an active role in bringing Cooper to LPSS. Despite having not attended any of the candidate interviews held here at home, she was one of the few board members who took a taxpayer-funded trip to the hometown of at least one of the top three superintendent candidates. She’s also the same board member who told The Daily Advertiser in August 2011 that she had no time to complete a survey ranking a list of priorities for the district. Trahan was profound in her assertion to the daily that her colleagues on the board who filled out the survey “couldn’t walk a week in my shoes.”
Now, seven months into a new era for Lafayette Parish public schools, Trahan’s irreverence has reached new heights.
Out of Touch
Youngsville, the fastest growing town in Louisiana and the community Trahan represents, made local headlines in May when Youngsville Mayor Wilson Viator announced that overcrowding in his town’s schools had become a critical problem that could no longer be ignored. The problem was so severe, in fact, that Viator said at the time he would consider a breakaway school district for Youngsville if LPSS could not find an immediate solution. More than half of the classrooms for the 900 students at Green T. Lindon Elementary School are housed in portable buildings, while Ernest Gallet Elementary teaches almost 1,200 students in a school built for 750.
Cooper immediately began working with Viator on a fix for Youngsville’s three public schools, proposing “quickly and completely” renovating G.T. Lindon, adding more classrooms and bathrooms that will address the immediate overcrowding and leave a little room for future student increases. That same plan also adds a new wing to Youngsville Middle School.
Funding for the Youngsville projects will come from bond sales that should bring in approximately $33 million. Roughly $8 million of that money will be spent on the Youngsville fix, leaving substantially less money for a project that was initially slated to receive the entire $33 million and more: the district’s new David Thibodaux Career and Technical High School.
The board’s original plans for Thibodaux Tech call for an additional $47 million to go toward the finishing touches of the school, such as a new athletic complex for the facility. But the new superintendent has since recommended a shift in the mission of LPSS’s new career-focused high school to a more rigorous STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum and a magnet school status. He says the district can accommodate Thibodaux Tech for about $8 million.
Trahan has been a strong supporter of Thib Tech, as well as a vocal advocate for the new school to receive the full funding the board planned for it before Cooper took over as superintendent. But when Cooper proposed using some of the bond money to accommodate Youngsville, at the time Trahan’s comments to The Daily Advertiser seemed to place her on board with addressing the immediate needs of her district.
Fast forward to the July 18 regular board meeting, which Viator attended to publicly ask for the board’s support in approving the bond sales and allowing progress to begin in Youngsville. The school board voted 5-4 to approve the bond sales. Trahan, one of four board members comprising a minority bloc that routinely teams up in opposition to Cooper’s initiatives, voted against the new construction to address overcrowding in her district. Say what?
What was Trahan’s rationale for not backing the mayor of her hometown and abandoning the students in her district in desperate need of classroom space? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. Trahan, a former LPSS school bus driver who admittedly decided to run for the board seat out of concerns that former Super Dr. James Easton would attempt to privatize the bus system, did not return calls made to her home, her cell phone and her bead shop in Youngsville.
“That’s a good question,” says Viator, who admits he hasn’t contacted Trahan since she cast the inexplicable vote against the interests of her own district.
“Whatever the reason, you have to find common ground to get things done,” he says.
A recent column by The Advocate’s Marsha Sills speculates that the minority four board members are rejecting the new construction because the projects included in the bond sale revenues depart from the facilities master plan adopted by the board in 2010. The board’s plan to prioritize facility needs across the district came with a $1.1 billion price tag, the first $560 million of which was to be funded by a property tax that voters firmly rejected in October. The majority of the board, commonly referred to as the Gang of Five, has been at odds with the other four board members for months on whether the master plan is still relevant since voters rejected funding the plan.
The board at its July 18 meeting agreed to review the master plan during board workshops that will be open to the public. Trahan was the only board member to vote against that idea as well. Why she opted against that proposal remains a mystery. It is worth noting, however, that Trahan has missed five out of six school board workshops held so far this year.
Attendance records obtained by The Ind — which take into account all scheduled meetings of the board (special meetings, regular meetings, workshops, committee assignments, etc.) — show that Trahan has missed a whopping 17 meetings this year alone. Trahan has the poorest 2012 school board attendance record to date, and she’s well on her way to topping the 20 absences she recorded last year.
It’s a title she hasn’t always held since taking office in 2007. In fact, Trahan’s first-term attendance records portray an active board member who missed only eight public meetings during her first four years on the board. She had perfect attendance in 2008.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Trahan’s board meeting appearances didn’t start to drastically dip until after May 4, 2011, the same day the majority Gang of Five made its debut on the board and blocked the extension of former Superintendent Burnell Lemoine’s contract.
Before May 4 of last year, Trahan had missed only three meetings. The other 17 absences in 2011 came after Lemoine’s contract extension was refused and the Gang of Five began voting in line with the community’s wishes and against the status quo.
Trahan’s face was also notably absent from both the Youngsville and Broussard chambers’ recent meetings, at which Cooper was listed as the guest speaker. Sources from the Youngsville chamber confirm that Trahan, owner of Bella Beads in Youngsville, was a member of the Youngsville chamber at one time but has since dropped out. She was invited to attend both of the recent chamber meetings.
Youngsville resident and active chamber member Jeremy Hidalgo, an insurance agent for MetLife in Lafayette whose wife works as a teacher for LPSS, wasn’t the only one who took notice of Trahan’s absence from the meetings at which Cooper spoke.
“One of the things [Cooper] mentioned in that speech really caught my attention. He made the comment that if it were not for our mayor, he wouldn’t have known about the serious problems with overcrowding in Youngsville schools,” Hidalgo says. “That struck me. It still bothers me that it took our mayor to do her job.”
It’s a job Trahan has held for five and a half years, though she’s never faced opposition in her two separate bids for the seat. Several business leaders and politicos in Youngsville speculate that in light of her track record of late, Trahan is much more likely to have an opponent if she decides to seek a third term.