Parents angry over principal change

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 7, 1999

CHRISTINE HARVEY / L’Observateur / August 7, 1999

LUTCHER – Well over 100 incensed parents turned out at a special meeting of the St. James Parish School Board Wednesday to oppose the July 27removal of St. James High School’s principal.In the end, their feelings weren’t appeased, and their pleas fell on deaf ears.

The St. James Parish School Board voted 4-3 to maintain its earlierdecision to replace Ridgely Mitchell with Jude Reulet, a school system central office employee.

Members George Nassar, Willis Octave and Charles Nailor voted to overturn last week’s decision. Lloyd LeBlanc, Carol Lambert, Kathleen Becnel andKenneth Foret voted to uphold it.

“We don’t like the decision,” said Jackie Levy, parent of an 11th-grader at St. James High School. Before the vote, parent organizer Wanda Pierre vowed that “This time we will be heard.”She was wrong in the end.

Despite that, Pierre’s pleas drew thunderous applause from the group, who agreed with her question to the board, “Who will be next?” The group’s tempers were even hotter than the room temperature, which hovered above 80 degrees in the packed school board meeting room. Apartial boycott of the meeting occurred during the board member comment period at the end of the meeting.

Mitchell said he was shocked but happy for all the support parents and students have given him since he was abruptly informed by schools Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne that he would move to the principal’sposition at the newly formed Learning Academy.

Mitchell said he only learned of the superintendent’s decision about four hours before the board voted at its meeting last week to move him.

“I was disappointed,” he said.

Nevertheless, he said before Wednesday’s special meeting that he did not think his supporters’ influence would change the school board’s prior decision.

Last week, only one member, Octave, voted against moving Mitchell, and the motion to do so passed 5-1, with Nassar absent.

Nailor said he had a change of heart after speaking with Mitchell for three hours Saturday, and he called the special meeting to vote on rescinding the earlier motion.

He said he learned a lot about Mitchell, who just previous to becoming the school’s principal a year ago taught English at St. James High, during theirmeeting and asked the board to reconsider his removal.

The parents in attendance were displeased and disheartened by the board’s final decision and let board members know that come election time this will not have been forgotten.

“We hired them, and we will fire them,” Pierre said.

Becnel’s decision to vote with the majority prompted one audience member to yell out, “You just got a recall.” Becnel represents District Seven and was the only west bank school board representative to oppose Mitchell’s reinstatement. St. James High islocated on the parish’s west bank.

She said she believes Cancienne’s decision to make the change is the right one and best for the children at the school, her child included.

“I, too, have a child in the public school system,” Becnel said.

The board members are politicians, not educators, so they must rely on the recommendations of experts like Cancienne to handle the business of education, she said.

Mitchell alluded to political machinations by the board as one factor in his removal.

Citing the recent replacement of interim Superintendent Walter J. LandrySr., Mitchell said that he expected to be moved out of the job, in whichLandry had placed him last year.

He said it appeared that after the board removed Landry, they would get rid of everything he did.

The board currently is embroiled in a lawsuit with Landry, in which Landry alleges racial discrimination by the board as a factor in his dismissal.

Parents rallied around Mitchell just after his removal last week and banded together in an effort to have their feelings heard.

Eileen Jasmine, whose child is a St. James High ninth-grader, questionedhow Cancienne could have made such an important decision after only having served as a superintendent for one month.

She also quoted while speaking to the board from a recent L’Observateur article, in which Cancienne said he would not make hasty decisions, especially before hearing the community’s concerns first.

“No one asked us our feelings as far as this movement. Nobody asked memy opinion, and I have children in every school on the west bank,” Jasmine said.

Jasmine also questioned Cancienne’s last minute decision at last week’s meeting to bring the subject of Mitchell’s removal before the board.

“How can you make a concrete decision in two minutes?” she asked.

Even LaRiesha Harris, St. James High’s incoming senior class president,chimed in about Mitchell, saying last year was her best year in high school because of his influence.

“He has been a very positive role model for St. James High,” she said.Octave said siding with the parents was not a dilemma for him.

“It was an easy decision for me,” he said. “I didn’t need any thinking time.Our superintendent can attest to that. With all due respect to oursuperintendent, I could not agree.”Cancienne defended his decision after the meeting, but said he was not entirely surprised it faced opposition.

“You anticipate that is always something that can occur,” he said.

Cancienne also said he believes Mitchell, who Nailor heralded as a fine disciplinarian to the board, is the best person to serve as principal of the Learning Academy, a school that combines academics with behavior modification.

Though Mitchell said he is disappointed by the meeting’s outcome, the board’s decision will not affect how he does his job.

Octave realized that this would not be the end for the parents and asked the board to “listen to the cry of the people.””Our parents are serious,” he said.

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