St. James protest continues; no end in sight

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 30, 1999

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / August 30, 1999

ST. JAMES – The anger of the St. James High School parents sitting on thelevee across from the school is as hot as the morning sun.

After a week and a half of protests and a student boycott, the parents and the St. James School Board are at a stalemate, both sides unwilling togive an inch.

The parents are still keeping their children from attending the schools on the west bank of St. James Parish. Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne andthe School Board don’t seem inclined to reinstate Ridgely Mitchell as principal of St. James High School.”The school board is biased,” stated James Jasmine, one of the protestors.

The parents don’t think the School Board is playing with a straight deck.

They are particularly upset that one of the board members, Kathleen “Kitty” Becnel, is also an employee of the local newspaper, The News- Examiner.

” Kitty Becnel is against us and works on a newspaper,” said Jasmine. “Ithink there is a bit of conflict-of-interest there.””Besides, ” piped up Melvin Southerland, ” Becnel never supported Landry.”Walter Landry is the former interim superintendent of the St. JamesSchools. It was Landry who appointed Mitchell as principal of St. JamesHigh last year. After Landry was not hired as the permanentsuperintendent, Mitchell was transferred to the Learning Academy by the new superintendent, Cancienne.

Mitchell is very popular with both parents and students. As a result, thetransfer has been called everything from racism to dirty politics by the parents, One of the assistant principals, Lionel Trench, was also transferred. Supporters of the two men say Mitchell and Trench had reallyimproved St. James High.”The people were doing a good job, “Jasmine said. “There was no reason toremove them.”Landry was even more emphatic about Mitchell’s qualifications.

“The school board knew that we had to improve St. James High,” he said.”Kids were walking around that school all day doing nothing. I knew thatMitchell was the man to do the job. He changed that place.”Mitchell, Becnel and Cancienne did not return telephone calls and were unavailable for comment on this story.

However, Cancienne has said in the past that Mitchell was transferred because he was the most qualified person to run the Learning Academy, an alternative school being developed in Lutcher for children with learning and social disabilities.

Parents say football coach part of problem

The parents don’t believe the superintendent. Some of them, Mitchellincluded, believe the transfer was a result of an ongoing argument between Mitchell and St. James High football coach, Rick Gaille, over jobperformance. Gaille coaches a football team that goes to the stateplayoffs every year, and some parents say Cancienne and the School Board removed Mitchell to ease the pressure on Gaille.

Landry, in an interview Thursday, confirmed that there was tension between Mitchell and Gaille.

“I had both of them in my office twice,” said Landry, “and I told Gaille that he should follow Mitchell’s orders and follow his job description.”Landry added, “Mitchell demands the best of everyone, and I guess there were some people who didn’t like that.”Protestors claim Gaille went to the St. James High Booster Club and askedmembers to go to Mitchell and tell him to ease off.

But the president of the booster club, MacArthur Webster, denies the charge emphatically.

“Gaille has never told me to go to Mitchell and talk to him,” Webster said.

Two other booster club members, Ralph Williams and Ronald Scioneaux, also said they were never approached by Gaille.

According to Webster, the trouble began last August when Mitchell first came to St. James High. “I detected a problem,” said Webster, “when Mitchell told me that Gaille was doing something wrong.”Webster informed the booster club, and it arranged several meetings between Gaille and Mitchell to try and work things out. At the last ofthese meetings the issue of job performance was brought up. Mitchell saidGaille wasn’t doing his job, and Gaille said he was. That was as far as itwent, according to Webster.

“It is not my job to tell Mitchell or Gaille what to do,” said Webster, adding, “I have never had a problem with Coach Gaille at all. He bringsgreat discipline and honor to the football team.”Gaille has repeatedly said he never went above Mitchell because it would have brought dishonor to himself. He said if he had not shown respect forhis principal he would not have set a proper example for his football team.

“This should not be a public issue at all,” Gaille said. “But I did receive asatisfactory job review twice from Mr. Mitchell.”As for the animosity being leveled at the football program, Williams said, “They knock football, but they always fill up the stadium during football season.”As much as they respect Mitchell and his “great ideas,” Webster and Williams have a lot of good things to say about the football program, too.

“Our biggest victory,” said Webster, “is putting kids in college. Of the 19seniors who played football last year, eight of them went to college on football scholarships.

“We want to keep football; it is good for the community. We live in a ruralcommunity and it keeps the kids out of trouble.”

Racism, politics are reasons, too

Football isn’t the only thing being blamed for the situation at hand. Angryparents are screaming politics and racism as reasons for Mitchell’s move.

While Mitchell and Gaille were having their differences, the School Board was looking for a new superintendent. The replacement of Walter Landry isalso a sore point with the protestors.

“Walter Landry was the best superintendent this parish ever had,” said James Ambrose, a concerned parent.

Landry believes that getting rid of Mitchell was all part of the School Board’s plan. Right now, he is suing the School Board over discriminatorypractices which occurred when he was replaced.

“There was a conspiracy against me, Mitchell and several others,” said Landry. “And we will prove it in our federal lawsuit. When the federalprosecutors asked me what would happen after I was fired, I told them that Mitchell would be transferred because of politics.”Jasmine agreed with Landry’s assessment.

“They brought in their hatchet man,” stated Jasmine. “Everything thatLandry put in place was undone by Cancienne. This has turned into a blackand white issue.”Webster admitted this is a political process, but said the other parents should give Cancienne a chance.

“The superintendent needs an opportunity to succeed,” Webster said. “Whenyou hire a guy to do his job, let him do it. He was superintendent inAssumption Parish for 10 years; he must have done something right.”

What about the children who are missing school?

Caught in the middle of this controversy are the children, especially the students who are being kept out of school.

“We the parents are taking the blame,” said Ambrose. “The blame should befocused on the School Board.”He stood up to emphasis his point. “We are forced to go to other methodsto educate our children while the School Board does nothing to help the children.”When asked what other methods are being used to educate their children, Jasmine said, “We have home study in operation.”He confirmed they have set up classes but would not say where they are.

Williams, who is a parent of two graduates of St. James High who are bothgoing to college on football scholarships, said he is not very sympathetic with the protesting parents.

“Where were the so-called ‘concerned’ parents during open house and pick- up report card day?” he asked. “We have 550 students at St. James High,and only 34 parents showed up for open house.”Williams said putting people like Mitchell in key positions like the Learning Academy is a great idea.

“He can help those kids with discipline problems, and the rest of the children can get on with their education,” he said.

Not only are children not getting educated, but the community is feeling the strain over this issue.

“This entire situation is tearing down the community,” said Webster. “It istearing apart friendships and families. This situation has gone much toofar.” Williams added, “Our kids are being used as political pawns.”Webster doesn’t know how to resolve the conflict, but he pleaded, “It’s time to move on and get the kids back into school and get on with the business of education.”In a surprising change of heart, Jasmine admitted, “When Cancienne came in, he was unaware of the political factors when he made his changes.”He paused for a second, then added, “I think that if he had to do it all over again he would not have transferred Mitchell.”Then his anger and determination return as he turned the ignition of his truck. “We may look dead, but we’re alive and well,” he said.The fight goes on.

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