Wednesday,  July 7, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

Seeking no-good SOBs for a thankless job

Using the term “qualifying” for registering to run for political office is kind of like using the word “practice” for careers in medicine, accounting and law. We’d like to believe our doctors, accountants and lawyers are done practicing when they get their licenses, and we’d like to think that candidates are qualified when they qualify. Clearly that’s not always the case, be it police jury or president.

Qualifying begins today and runs through Friday across the state for the fall elections, including for two conspicuously vacant seats on the Lafayette Parish School Board. Longtime board members Mike Hefner of District 5 and Ed Sam of District 4 announced their retirements within days of each other recently. They are the longest serving members of the current board, a super majority of which is in its first term. Each was elected in 1990, and each believes that two decades in a thankless job is enough.

“Don’t do it to expect appreciation,” Hefner told me last week. “You don’t do it to expect compliments. The day you’re elected, all of a sudden you’re lower than a snake in the grass — you’re a no-good S.O.B. after that.”

Sell it, Mike, sell it!

Hefner’s and Sam’s replacements will inherit a school system that is in need of more than $1 billion in school repairs and new facilities and will go before voters, hat in hand, in the coming months — maybe as early as November — to request about half that amount. Notwithstanding the current economic climate, asking voters for that much money, likely in the form of a property tax, will be a tough sell. And selling it to a community that is sometimes hostile and otherwise disengaged with public education, is something else entirely. Parish voters said no to tax propositions for school maintenance in 1992 and again in 2000.

And can the public have confidence that the school board is serious about maintaining facilities when, as a final stroke on the 2010-2011 budget, the board voted to pull $4.5 million out of maintenance for a downpayment on the career-tech high school?

A few weeks ago The Independent sent questionnaires to school board members seeking their thoughts on education in Lafayette. The candidates who qualify to run will also get them. I’ll admit that when pointing to disengagement with the school system, three fingers are pointing back at us. This paper has been less than aggressive in keeping tabs on the second biggest civic enterprise in Lafayette Parish behind city-parish government. Less than aggressive is a nice way of saying torpid.

We plan to change that. The Lafayette Parish School System, warts and all, educates 30,000 of the 38,000 school-age children in the parish. The school board very much matters. We all should give a damn.

Some in the community are ruing the retirement of Hefner and Sam, who have genuine institutional knowledge, i.e., an understanding of how the system works, what buttons to press and levers to pull, who to lean on to get things done. There will be no more Mike Hefners or Ed Sams after they leave. But that’s just what we literally have elected to do. A few years ago parish voters imposed term limits on the board. A dozen years. Three four-year terms.

Assuming candidates without backgrounds in public education seek those open seats and the remainder of the board stays in place, the board will have only two members with experience as either classroom teachers or administrators.

Our sources are telling us that several of the incumbents who plan to run for re-election will have opposition.

We expect new board members to need some practice. Let’s hope they’re qualified, and then hold them accountable.

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