N. Iberville High trial opens Monday in packed courtroom

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit to keep North Iberville High School open spent the opening hours of the trial Monday trying to show that the superintendent lied about keeping the school open to pass a 31-mill property tax last year.

“The plaintiffs are asking the court to take over the functions of the School Board,” said Board Attorney Mike Fontham, who asked Judge Robin Free to dismiss that part of the lawsuit. “The state statute makes it clear it is up to the School Board to decide which schools should be open.”

District Judge Robin Free said the trial would continue at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, October 20. He said he was available to continue the case later this week or next week, but that the trial attorneys were not available until the October date.

Maringouin Mayor John F. Overton and other parents of school-age children filed the suit to stop the School Board from closing North Iberville High this fall on grounds the board violated the Public Meetings Act by deciding the issue before the official 8-7 vote on April 21. The plaintiffs later expanded the suit to include tax issue as a reason for the court to overrule the School Board’s decision.

Fontham said the tax proposition asked voters to raise teachers' salaries and provide construction funds for the school system, and did not address specific proposals for individual schools.

“There was nothing in that electoral inquiry to voters...about North Iberville High School,” Fontham said. He contended there were “very strong and compelling reasons for closing that school and transferring the students to a much better school.”

Overton, the first to take the stand as the trial opened Monday, said Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr. was promoting the tax when he told a December 7 town hall meeting in Maringouin that it was “imperative” to keep both North Iberville and White Castle high schools open and upgrade them. His attorneys introduced a transcript of the meeting as evidence.

“No. 1, we was just flat out lied to...” Overton charged in his testimony Monday. “He gave us false hope.”

“All schools in the parish would get upgrades,” the mayor recalled Cancienne as saying. “He gave a list of things he was going to do to improve North Iberville High School. He said it was imperative for North Iberville and White Castle to stay open.”

In an opening statement to the count, Fontham said Dr. Cancienne did not know the problems at the school while he was promoting the tax. It was not until summer of 2008 that Cancienne discovered students from North Iberville were unable to get into Southern University or other colleges because they did not have “quality credits.”

“This school was a failing school,” the attorney said. The high school was losing enrollment and had fewer than 25 students in a class, too few for the school system to offer the variety of academic and career courses and other programs available for the students at Plaquemine High School, where the ones who stayed in the school system have been transferred.

Overton said his daughter, in the ninth grade, is attending Port Allen High School (in West Baton Rouge Parish) because she “was hurt that [the superintendent] did not keep his promise.”

Dr. Cancienne testified that when he recommended the tax, it was his intention to keep the school open.

The tax passed in March 2008 with support of a majority of Maringouin voters, but not with a majority of North Iberville votes Fontham noted.

Cancienne said he began considering closing the school in August 2008 after the problem with the students' college entry arose.

“You have to deal with reality,” the superintendent said. “You have to give children a chance to excel.”

He said he had also proposed to build a new school for the westside Math, Science and Arts Academy on 25 acres of land on Bayou Jacob Road.

“I told the people of the parish that,” he said. “It didn't work out.”

Cancienne said he did not want to interrupt North Iberville High while before students finished their standardized tests in March. He made his recommendation to close the and send seventh through 12th graders to Plaquemine in an April 15 memo to School Board members, just ahead of the April 21 meeting at which the recommendation was accepted.

Overton testified that several days before the meeting, he was traveling to Thibodaux with School Board Member Brian S. Willis of Plaquemine when Board Member David “Worm” Daigle of Grosse Tete called Willis and said they had the votes to close the school.

Fontham asked if that was the only evidence the plaintiffs had of the Public Meetings Act violation.

Cancienne testified he had talked to School Board members about the recommendation on the phone and in person, but had not counted the votes.

“I had a feel, but I wasn't certain,” the superintendent said.

“When you put it on the agenda, you knew you had a commitment from certain board members to vote for it,” said Overton's attorney Gideon Clark III. “You talked to board members.”

“I always talk to board members,” Cancienne said.

“I had indications they would support it, but you never know,” he said.

Overton, Cancienne and Maringouin Town Clerk Teresa Marsh, who taped the December 7 public meeting, were the only ones to testify on Monday.

All 15 School Board members have been subpoenaed to testify.

The Save Our Schools group met for a prayer vigil before the trial started at 1 p.m. Monday. Supporters of the high school packed the courtroom.

District Judge Robin Free tried to move the case to the Carl F. Grant Civic Center, but Fontham objected and the First Circuit Court of Appeal ordered the trial back to the Courthouse.

The First Circuit found the Civic Center venue would adversely affect the requirement for judicial proceedings be “conducted with dignity and in an orderly and expeditious manner...so that justice is done.”