Dr. Gerd Wuestemann, executive director of the Acadiana Center for the Arts, may have acted too soon by sending out Tuesday’s letter lambasting Lafayette Parish School System officials over the lack of available money to keep alive an arts program for K-3rd graders due to this year’s nose dive in federal Title I funding, says Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper, who describes the letter’s depiction of events as “heinously” inaccurate.

pat_cooper
Photo by Robin May
Dr. Pat Cooper

Cooper, in a late-Tuesday afternoon phone interview, says Wuestemann’s letter [read in its entirety here] is filled with inaccuracies and false statements, and that a response letter, with corrections, will be sent out to school board members soon due to the “nature” of some of the allegations.

According to Cooper, Wuestemann has known since September or October of 2012, shortly after the board passed last year’s budget, of a significant possibility that funding for Primary Academic Creative Experiences, or PACE, was in jeopardy due to uncertainty over whether Congress and the White House would agree on a final budget. An agreed upon budget never happened, and the result was sequestration and across the board cuts in federal spending, resulting in a severe drop in the Title dollars divvied among school systems nationwide. For LPSS, it meant a 10 percent, or $1 million, decrease in its 2013 allocation from the feds. According to Cooper, that approximate amount wasn’t confirmed until just recently.

Since discussions over PACE’s future started last year, Cooper says it’s been made vividly clear that the school system would do what it could, but he is adamant no promises were ever made.

“Since we started having meetings with him in September or October last year, we’ve wuestemann2been telling him, ‘We’re not going to be able do this, we don’t have the money,’ so I’m not sure what exactly he heard,” Cooper recalls.

“Where I think he’s confused is we said we’d put PACE on our Task Force recommendations list as one of the Turnaround Plan objectives. He was told we’d put it on the list, but the board would still have to find the money for it to be funded. Then we got all these [federal] cuts and find out we can’t fund it anymore with Title I.

"For anything to be put into our budget," Cooper continues, "it has to be on the recommendations list, so when we get an approved budget from the board, it’ll be on the list already and we can go through it with a microscope and see if we can’t find some available money.”

Deciding which Title I-funded programs and services would continue receiving funds with the school system’s reduced cut of the federal money was determined by level of importance, and Cooper says PACE just wasn’t high enough on that list to keep getting its $260,000 annual share.

“Is he really asking me to take money that pays salaries for teachers of our poverty students so he can keep his program and pay his artists, because I can’t rightly do that,” argues Cooper. “That money has to go to its best use, and to me that means continuing to educate our poverty-level students.”

Cooper says Wuestemann, over the course of a number of meetings held between late-2012 and after the federal sequestration took effect, has repeatedly been told — with officials from the school system and representatives from the Performing Arts Society of Acadiana present — that the future of PACE would not be decided until after the school board finalizes the 2013-14 fiscal year budget, which it still has to do. Wuestemann also has also been told, maintains Cooper, that he too should consider raising funds as there was never a guarantee on the amount the school system would be able to provide, if it could provide anything.

“We told him we’d still try and help, but the board would first have to pass the budget and then we’d look through all our final revenues and see where we could find some money. He was told from the start this wouldn’t happen until the board passes a budget,” Cooper reiterates.

For Cooper, Wuestemann would have been wise holding off on his letter, especially in light of his recent handling of the situation with a number of LPSS central office employees. According to Cooper, not only is Wuestemann’s letter filled with “heinous” inaccuracies, but his “bully” treatment of school system employees is even more unacceptable.

“His attitude has been ‘You do this or else;’ he’s been verbally abusive with our staff and has just acted like an outright bully using bully tactics,” says Cooper. “That’s just not how you go about treating people when you immediately don’t get your way. In spite of that, we’re still going to try and help him find money for PACE, but like I’ve told him again and again, we can’t do anything until we get an approved budget from the board.”

The IND spoke briefly Wednesday morning with Wuestemann, who says he stands by the accuracy of his letter but would not comment further until after he meets with Cooper Thursday.

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