The week before a Bay St. Louis councilman received a racially charged letter alluding to an impending school board appointment, the mayor quietly sent a letter to councilmen outlining the reasons he wouldn’t re-appoint the district’s only minority board member.
Mayor Mike Favre on Feb. 28 sent a memo outlining his reasons for replacing Joan Thomas with longtime educator Ann Lathrop on the Bay-Waveland School Board. The council approved Lathrop’s appointment 5-2 on Monday with Councilmen Jeffery Reed, the letter recipient, and Buddy Zimmerman voting no.
Reed said minorities were being denied representation on the school board. Favre’s contention that a “lady is a minority,” touched off a commotion in the crowd, some of whom laughed at the suggestion. In the letter, he further elaborated on that idea.
“According to Merriam-Webster, the term minority applies to ‘the smaller in number of two groups constituting a whole’ and ‘a part of a population differing from others in some characteristics and often subjected to differential treatment,’ ” he wrote. “That said, I feel that Ms. Lathrop is fully capable of representing multiple minority groups, and I do not think that race is the only minority classification that should be given our consideration.
“It would be impossible to attempt to represent every race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political alignment, etc. on a school board consisting of three appointed members, and I do not feel it is our place as Mayor or Council to determine which minority groups deserve to be represented on our school board.”
There were two minorities on the board last March, when one of their terms expired. Now there are none. Neither was reappointed by Favre. Three of the members are appointed by the Bay St. Louis mayor and two are elected by voters in Waveland.
Thomas said it was the first time since Bay-Waveland schools were integrated that there are no minorities on the board. About a third of the district’s 1,809 students are minorities, according to figures from the district office.
It wasn’t race, Favre says
Favre, though, said it was votes cast and actions taken on the board by Thomas that disqualified her.
There was a vote to hire siblings Vikki Landry and John McCraw — she as superintendent and he as business administrator — that Favre said disregarded a state Ethics Commission opinion that a sibling of a new superintendent should not be recommended for continued employment in the district’s central office. Thomas said the Board put an assistant superintendent between Landry and McCraw to address the commission’s concerns, an action taken on the advice of attorneys for the school district and the state Association of School Boards.
She said a letter from Jim Keith, association attorney, contradicts the mayor.
Favre said there also was a violation of the open Meetings Act: an improper executive session to extend the terms of Landry’s and McCraw’s contracts.
“As you can see in the documentation prepared by the mayor, the only violation was that the school board was not specific enough in the reason for entering executive session,” Thomas said. “All five board members voted to enter executive session. The ethics commission found no fault with the topic of the session and, in fact, commended the board for our handling of the matter — with the exception of the lack of specificity for entering the session.”
“We had people who were involved who were leaking information to candidates, digging up information on candidates, having all these poison pen letters circulating throughout the area,” she said. She declined to name who she thought was behind all that because she feared being sued.
Favre said the board failed to properly vet Landry, who had never been a school principal and was never interviewed by the Board.
“We were trying to stabilize the school district,” Thomas said. “Dr. (Rebecca) Ladner walked in the second day of school — and resigned. We didn’t have anywhere to go but the interim superintendent, which was the assistant superintendent at that time.”
How new member was picked
Favre said starting in October he posted the school board position, solicited resumes, and set up a panel of City Clerk Cissy Gonzales, Chief of Police Gary Ponthieaux and City Attorney Heather Ladner to interview candidates.
He said Lathrop emerged as the best candidate.
“A thorough, fair set of questions was asked of each candidate, and the responses received clearly defined the best candidate that is most closely aligned with our city’s goals of fiscal responsibility, governmental transparency and willingness to hold themselves and others accountable for the decisions made relative to school board matters,” he wrote. “In times of potential financial cuts from state education funding sources, the school board will have to figure out ways to do more, with less money, and achieve better outcomes. This is a task that will take a tremendous amount of hard work, and Ms. Lathrop is most certainly up for the challenge and capable of taking the school district in the direction it needs to go.”
She also wrote the councilmen promising that she had no political agenda and that she and Thomas had been fairly interviewed.
“I taught many children during my time at Bay High School, some may have been your children, and I hope I served them well,” wrote Lathrop, who taught in Bay-Waveland schools for 27 years, “Be assured, if appointed, my allegiance and decisions will always be unbiased and based on what is in the best interest of all of our children.”