Vocal minority challenges; School Board backs Cancienne

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

Iberville Parish School Board Member Dorothy R. Sansoni of Plaquemine Monday night challenged administrative plans to move used furniture into the new $8 million early childhood  center at Iberville Elementary School, but found no traction.

It was one of several issues in which Sansoni and a minority of up to seven members of the 15-member School Board unsuccessfully contested recommendations from Superintendent P. Edward Cancienne Jr.

“There are a lot of people who what to tell you how to do your job,” Board Member Tom Delahaye of Plaquemine told Cancienne at one point. “...They should apply for the job.”

On the furniture issue, which came up during a discussion of a Buildings and Grounds Committee report, Sansoni objected to plans to buy new pre-K and kindergarten for the Math, Science and Arts Academy-West and to move the “pretty used and broken furniture” from the MSA to the early childhood center at Iberville Elementary. The center is getting new furnishings for the lobby and and a conference room, but “nothing for the children,” she said.

Dr. Cancienne told the POST/SOUTH it was always the plan to move the furniture back to Iberville Elementary. It was moved to E. J. Gay School, where MSA-West is located, when K-1 classes were temporarily relocated there during construction at the elementary school.

“Now that we have the building, we're moving it back,” he said. “...If the furniture is good we're going to use it. I went and looked at it Friday. It looks fine to me.”

“There is nothing broken or hazardous,” Project Manager Patrick Norris responded to Sansoni at the board meeting. is overseeing the school construction program. “What we're adding is for spaces that did not exist before.”

When Sansoni continued her objection, board President Melvin Lodge of St. Gabriel told her “you have two minutes.”

“I have until I finish,” Sansoni said.

Delahaye said it was important to note that when the bond issue for school construction was proposed to voters, the plans included a new $20 million facility for MSA-West that will not be built. (The School Board instead is renovating and adding to E. J. Gay School.)

He wondered if “Mrs. Sansoni would be raising the same objection if Iberville Elementary was 90 percent white.”

Iberville Elementary is a majority black school. At the MSAs, the student bodies are 50 percent black and 50 percent white.

“Speak up for the white children, too,” Delahaye told Sansoni.

Sansoni provided the POST/SOUTH with a copy of an email she sent to Cancienne, whom she said had indicated the early childhood center was not getting new furniture because Principal Delores Thibodaux had not requested it.

“It is difficult to understand how used furniture (from MSA) is appropriate for Iberville Elementary, but not acceptable to remain at MSA,” Sansoni wrote. “I would like to review the budget allocations for the new site because it is inconceivable that a budget (for a new building) would not include the necessary furniture that would be needed for a building that would house students. The goal for MSA should not interfere with the goals that we have for our other sites, and vise [sic] versa.

“Appearance is everything, and we will not have the parents or the students thinking they are less valued at one site than at another or to surmise that we value some schools more than others. This action is certainly questionable and requires further investigation.”

The email also went to School Board members and other school officials.

“In all my years, I have never read a more racist-tinged statement,” Delahaye responded by email.

Several years ago, Sansoni sued Delahaye for calling her a racist at a School Board meeting, but later dropped the suit.

Board Member Darlene Ourso of White Castle told the board she also had been told that Iberville Elementary was getting the used furniture because the principal had not put in a request.

“I'm kind of confused that a principal would have to request furniture,” Ourso said.

Board Member Albertha Hasten of White Castle said that, while Iberville Elementary was not in her district, she too thought it should get new furniture.

“You represent the whole parish,” Board Member Paul Distefano of Plaquemine told Hasten. “You've been here 15 years, and you haven't figured that out?”

Distefano said Hasten should put the issue on the agenda.

Board Member Nancy T. Broussard of St. Gabriel offered the same advice to Sansoni.

Several board members also took issue with five of the superintendent's personnel recommendations, approved by the Personnel Committee.

Ourso asked the full board to reconsider granting Executive Director Janet Marionneaux's request for a medical sabbatical for the coming school year.

Provided the Attorney General's Office gave a favorable opinion, Marionneaux would get 65 percent of her regular pay while on leave, plus money from her accumulated sick leave, which would give her 100 percent of her salary, Dr. Cancienne said.

“Marionneaux had accumulated a significant number of sick days,” he said.

The full board unanimously approved a motion by Member David “Worm” Daigle of Grosse Tete to pay Marionneaux 100 percent of her pay and seek the Attorney General's opinion.

Cancienne also recommended temporarily reassigning Maintenance Supervisor Joe “T-Joe” Distefano Jr. to special projects and add maintenance supervision to the duties Projects Manager Norris. The arrangement would last for a year. He also proposed advertising for a new assistant maintenance manager to assist Norris.

Chief Financial Officer Jolain Landry said Distefano's new duties would be to provide detailed information on water lines, mechanical equipment, heating and air conditioning equipment and other facilities requiring routine maintenance at each school.

“What happens when the day comes when T-Joe retires,” Landry asked, saying the information needed to be put on paper. “It helps protect the district in the future.”

According to Landry, Norris currently makes $67,101 a year, but would get an additional $15,000 stipend for taking on the additional duties for the year. The assistant would be hired at a salary of $33,067 to $39,567 a year, depending on the employee's experience. T-Joe Distefano's salary would remain at $56,424, she said.

“The parish is struggling financially,” Ourso said, objecting to the new hire.

Norris, she said, is “overwhelmed with all his responsibilities. I don't know where he is going to find the time” to take on the maintenance supervisor's duties.

Board Member Brian S. Willis of Plaquemine said the board would be giving the raise and hiring a new assistant at a time when the maintenance department was short two workers who should be getting air conditioning units ready for the opening of school this week.

“I see no need to make this swap,” said Member Stanley Washington of Maringouin.

The majority of the board went along with the superintendent recommendations for reassigning Distefano and Norris in a 9-6 vote, with Washington, Willis, Sansoni, Hasten, Ourso and Yolanda Laws of Plaquemine voting no.

The vote to advertise for an assistant maintenance manager passed in an 8-7 vote, with Lodge, Paul Distefano, Broussard, Delahaye, Daigle voting yes, along with Michael “Chief” Barbee, Michael Hebert and Glyna M. Kelley, all of Plaquemine.

“There is no job description, no salary, but we're still going to advertise,” Ourso said.

Sansoni asked for the issue to be delayed till next month.

“Everybody knows what an assistant manager does,” Delahaye said. “The fact that there is not an actual job description is a red herring...a ruse to confuse and not allow the superintendent to run the system as he believes he should.”

Ourso and Board Member Distefano both tried to talk at the same time.

“Let me know when they don't have the floor,” Distefano said, leaving the meeting room and slamming the door behind him. He returned to vote on the issue.