Laster headed out?

Published 11:28 pm Monday, September 10, 2007

VIDALIA — Superintendent Kerry Laster’s contract will be up for renewal at Thursday’s school board meeting, and there’s some concern in the community about the outcome.

Laster, who started working for the district nearly four years ago, said she knew she had some supporters and some dissenters.

“We need to have things settled down one way or the other,” she said. “Either I’m going to stay here and stay focused or I’m going to be a lame duck.”

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If her contract is not renewed, her last day of work would be Dec. 31.

Most board members reached for comment would not say whether they were for or against renewing the contract.

“I’m not going to say,” Board President Gary Parnham said. “I don’t politic with anyone.”

Parnham said he wants to talk with other board members before he makes a final decision, but will use things such as annual superintendent evaluations to decide.

Board members Martha Rabb, Darryl Price and Mary Campbell would not comment on the vote. Price and Campbell said they had received a few phone calls from the public on the issue.

“I had one for and one against,” Campbell said. “One said she’d done an excellent job and the other said the opposite.”

Campbell said though she hasn’t heard from more than two people lately, she’s talked with citizens over the course of time to get their opinion on school matters.

“I have (my opinion), and I look at the whole picture during her tenure,” she said. “My decision will be based on what I think.”

Board member Darlene Baker said she was definitely voting to renew Laster’s contract.

“She’s done a wonderful job so far and has a real interest in educating children,” Baker said.

Baker said she knew some in the community were not supportive of Laster based on a few decisions in recent years.

“The big issue is the buses,” Baker said. “There’s a lot stemming from the buses.”

The school district signed a contract with private company Durham Bus Services in 2006, outsourcing the management of the district’s bus drivers and routes. Many district-paid bus drivers were outraged that school money was going to an out-of-town company when the drivers repeatedly had asked for raises. The bus issue has come up at nearly every board meeting for the last year.

Baker said despite the bus issue, she had received numerous calls from businesspeople and parents who supported Laster.

“I haven’t talked with the other board members to know how they’ll vote, but I think she’s a great asset to our parish and I certainly hope that her contract is renewed.”

A large group of parish teachers are planning to attend Thursday night’s meeting to show support for Laster, Vidalia High teacher Dorothy Ulmer said.

Ulmer credits Laster as being the driving force behind several programs implemented at VHS and other schools.

Since Laster has been superintendent, parish schools have implemented Reading First — a comprehensive reading program — in kindergarten through fifth grade. They received $3.5 million in federal grant funds for the program.

The middle and high schools have READ 180 labs to focus on students who may be struggling with reading.

The high schools have implemented high school redesign and offered college courses, technical classes and online classes.

“I’ve heard so many good things about READ 180,” Ulmer said. “And (Laster) is the one responsible for getting that grant.

“She kind of gets behind you. With high school redesign, she’s always been involved. She stays in the classroom and always follows up.”

Ulmer said she was concerned that the board members were not going to renew Laster’s contract.

“I just want a reason given,” Ulmer said. “If something happens there needs to be a reason.”

Justin Conner, president of the parish chapter of the NAACP, said there have been plenty of reasons for Laster to go.

Conner has spoken openly against the superintendent for some time, but said teachers and other school employees won’t publicly do so because they are afraid.

Conner said Laster has not treated Vidalia and Ferriday schools with equality, has been labeled as dishonest by some in the community and made the wrong decision on the buses.

“For the school board, it’s fast in their minds to get a fresh new look on the parish,” Conner said. “(Laster) makes moves without even consulting whether it’s a good idea for the community.”

The board meeting starts at 6 p.m. Thursday at the parish school board office. Laster will decide whether her contract will be addressed in open session or in executive session.

Board members Ricky Raven, Deanie Roberts, Raymond Riley and Fred Butcher could not be reached for comment Mon-