Small-Town Boy Meets Big-District Politics: Can Cade Brumley Boost Student Learning, Teacher Morale in Louisiana’s Largest School System?

Jefferson Parish Public School System

Soon after he took over as superintendent of Louisiana’s largest district, Cade Brumley was touring a school when a second-grader asked a question Brumley was certain had been planted by the child’s teacher: How he could be so young and have such a big job?

“I said, ‘I’m 37,’ ” Brumley recounts. “And one cool thing is that my own kids are in the system. They’re affected by the decisions I’m trying to make.”

Brumley was ready for the question, which he has answered over and over since his name was first floated for superintendent of the Jefferson Parish Public School System. He was well known to education policymakers as a talented change agent, but teachers and community members who raised questions at the March meeting where the school board voted to hire Brumley were incredulous about his baby face and small-town résumé.

With nearly 50,000 students, Jefferson Parish is 10 times as large as the district Brumley came from: DeSoto, one of Louisiana’s smallest, consisting of nine schools in the rural northwestern part of the state.

The Jefferson Parish Public School System is perpetually underfunded, produces student test scores that are mediocre at best, and is a roiling hotbed of political controversy, with an education policy pendulum that has swung wildly for nearly a decade. All nine seats on its school board — which includes two members who have been sued by staffers — are up for election this fall.

Equal parts funny and polite, Brumley seems unfazed by the skinny limb he’s been asked to crawl out on. He’s soft-spoken and direct, and he seems, both in conversation and on social media, to be having nonstop fun. He makes hokey videos to promote district happenings and sends them out with jokes about his acting abilities. He has his assistant call if he’s going to be late — even by a minute.

Yet Brumley doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that his is, in fact, a daunting job. “There are just so many varied interests that have to be balanced with any decision,” he says. “And the easiest way for me to maneuver that is to say, ‘What’s best for kids?’ Because the politics will fall out where they fall out.”

On March 26, his first day as Jefferson Parish superintendent, Brumley released a plan for his first 100 days on the job. Among them: immediately implementing a new top-tier curriculum and a host of supports for teachers.

Perhaps most interesting to leaders of other traditional school districts, many of them notoriously dogged by cutthroat politics, he applied for a state grant to help turn around the district’s lowest-performing schools. Because the resulting transformation zone is codified in a contract, the work in theory will continue whether or not Brumley survives the ideological scrum.

Jefferson Parish Public School System

“Philosophically, he’s loyal to what works, rather than an ideological camp,” says Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White. “He has an even temperament and is able to absorb bumps in the road.”

Brumley has been issuing weekly progress updates, and on July 16, his 100 days completed, he released a detailed report — along with a Rocky-themed video of his school visits. If those who doubted his hiring still harbor reservations, for the moment, anyhow, they’re keeping them to themselves.

“He’s the Drew Brees of superintendents,” school board president Mark Morgan told a local TV station after the report’s release, referring to the New Orleans Saints quarterback. “We are lucky to have him.”

A District in Turmoil

While a tsunami of ink has documented the evolution of New Orleans’s radical, mostly-charter-school system, not even the most attuned K-12 politics- and policy-watchers know much, if anything, about Jefferson Parish, just across the Mississippi River.

Its neighborhoods are dizzyingly diverse economically, racially, and ethnically. Because of its history as a key banana trading port, it’s home to an established community of Hondurans and other, more recent, Spanish-speaking arrivals.

Its schools need $7 billion in repairs, teacher salaries are abysmal, and there’s no budgetary cavalry in sight. Half of students don’t enroll in district schools, which means the parish’s wealthiest residents are slow to tax themselves to increase classroom spending.

Each of the past two school board elections sparked a tectonic shift in the parish’s game plan for its schools. Student performance ratings rose dramatically with the arrival of one new regime, only to tumble back down with the next.

Brumley concedes that the politics are worrisome. But he makes a persuasive case that his rural roots make him uniquely equipped to transform the district. In 5,000-student DeSoto Parish, he says, he needed to understand every staff member’s job to do his own.

Moreover, rural communities have politics, too. In DeSoto Parish, the issues Brumley was forced to tackle as superintendent got so heated at times that police assigned him a security detail.

“There is a group in every population that does not want to change,” he says. “It challenges their comfort level, it challenges their concept of their self, it challenges their job stability.”

Brumley grew up in the village of Converse, population 400, located just south of DeSoto Parish in Sabine Parish. His father was a police officer and his mother worked in the cafeteria of the local K-12 school.

“I would get up with her and leave at — it seemed like 3:00 a.m., but it was probably 5:00,” he recalls. “She had to be there for breakfast. I would sleep in the car until it was time for school.”

In first grade, Brumley’s teacher asked what her pupils wanted to be when they grew up. There were lots of budding firefighters and doctors — and then Brumley, who announced he wanted to be the school principal.

“I know this is a little bit hokey,” he confesses, “but it’s true.”

Jefferson Parish Public School System

Shirley Rivers taught Brumley’s junior high English class, coached his high school Quiz Bowl and Beta Club teams, and has remained a close friend. She always imagined he would go into politics. She guessed close, she quips, noting that in the village where Brumley grew up, the twin poles of power were the church and the school.

“I guess, in a sense, being an administrator in education is political,” she says. “He thrives on challenges.”

In 2002, after graduating from Northwestern State University of Louisiana and earning a teaching certificate, Brumley moved in with his grandfather Cecil Brumley — “they were like two teenagers,” says Rivers — and applied to teach in nearby Shreveport, where 99 percent of students were black and virtually all were impoverished.

“I had an interview and they hired me on the spot. I thought, ‘I’m really sharp, I must have impressed them,’ ” he recalls, laughing. “I found out later I was the only one that applied.”

Brumley taught for five years before being hired as the principal in Converse in 2008. He says being principal was the best job he’s ever had. He loved being able to make an immediate difference for students and teachers, he says.

He dived in, but two years later he was tapped to be assistant superintendent in a neighboring district. As he rose through the ranks, he commuted on weekends 90 minutes each way to a doctoral program at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. He and two other men shared a room at a La Quinta Inn — “$13 apiece with breakfast included.”

Brumley has two sons who are entering fifth and ninth grades. “My wife was, and still is at times, a single mother to our kids,” he says.

Tracing a Turnaround

When Brumley was hired as superintendent in 2012, DeSoto Parish was in shambles. The previous superintendent was under investigation for financial improprieties and had refused to change the district’s budget when local sales tax revenue — heavily dependent on hydraulic fracking, a natural-gas-related industry that collapsed overnight — fell from $72 million to $20 million.

During Brumley’s five years as head of the district, revenue fell by 40 percent, forcing him to cut salaries and lay off staff. The low point came in 2013, when he called a meeting in the gym at Pelican All Saints, a village school of 161 students that was built to accommodate 700. The school was on the state’s failing list, and Brumley was facing a $600,000-a-month deficit.

The school had to close, he told community members, insisting that the result of such a painful move would be better outcomes for their kids. Still, people were angry, and there were threats.

“They were credible enough that the police department made sure I had someone with me at all times,” Brumley says, adding that sometimes prudence dictated spending the night in a hotel. “I told my staff, ‘Look, this is what it is. But I don’t want us to just survive this, I want us to thrive.’ ”

Coupled with changes like those he has begun in Jefferson Parish — instituting a quality curriculum and investing in intensive teacher training — his tough budget decisions helped stabilize the DeSoto district, he says now.

In 2016, the district’s schools received the first of two A ratings from the state, propelling DeSoto from a 2010 ranking of 45th out of Louisiana’s 70 districts to ninth in 2017. Along the way, Brumley was chosen to be president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

Meanwhile, more than 300 miles to the south, Jefferson Parish was making rapid progress under Superintendent James Meza, retired dean of the University of New Orleans School of Education. When a board backed by the local business community appointed him in 2011, enrollment was falling, the district faced a $25 million deficit, and the schools had a collective D rating.In a 2016 interview with The 74, Meza described most of what he did as streamlining. He eliminated a third of central office staff and 17 poor-performing principals, as well as initiatives that weren’t working. He refused to renegotiate a 30-year-old teacher contract that he said tied principals’ hands. Over the course of three years, the system moved from a D to a B, and Meza built up a $50 million surplus.

But in 2014, the American Federation of Teachers spent $650,000 to oust the board that had appointed Meza, who had already announced his retirement. The new board reversed many of his changes.

Meza was replaced in 2015 by Isaac Joseph; on his watch, the percentage of students in grades 3 through 8 scoring at grade level on state assessments fell from 63 percent to 55 percent, the percentage passing high school end-of-course exams fell from 89 percent to 70.5 percent, and average scores on the college-readiness ACT test stayed flat.

In January of this year, the board voted not to renew Joseph’s contract, and he resigned in February. Brumley was one of two applicants to replace him. The other dropped out after state officials said he lacked the right credentials.

At his public interview with the board, Brumley said his first order of business would be to create the 100-day plan, spelling out short-term goals and steps toward longer-term strategies. He also, in response to questions, said he had tried to eliminate homework in DeSoto Parish but faced parent pushback.

“I don’t believe in homework,” the New Orleans Advocate reported he said, under a headline that dubbed him the “new, anti-homework superintendent.” “I believe when children go home there are other pursuits they should be involved in.”

The board voted to hire him, 9-0.

A Teacher Brain Drain

One of Brumley’s first acts was to make $1.3 million in immediate cuts to the central office to give all teachers a $250 raise — symbolic, but accompanied by a promise to find a sustainable source of funding for a meaningful hike, because Jefferson Parish needs a way to attract and keep teaching talent. Right now, the district loses four of every 10 first-year teachers, as well as three of every 10 who return for a second year. Teachers make $4,000 to $6,000 less than their counterparts in nearby districts.

In the fall, voters rejected a levy to support teacher pay; nearly half of Jefferson Parish’s school-age children attend private schools, and persuading their families to tax themselves to pay for district schools will take effort.

Jefferson Parish last spring provided a stipend of $2,000 per teacher for safety training, but the extra pay is not a substitute for increasing the salary scale, says Brumley.

He favors putting the issue to another vote next May. Meanwhile, the school board has convened a committee composed of groups that are typically adversaries, including the local teachers union and the business community, to start a community dialogue about the need for competitive pay.

One thing Brumley discovered during his classroom visits — that he didn’t post on Twitter — was that teachers were using a hodgepodge of resources to meet differing objectives. “Then they’d complain, ‘The district isn’t supporting this,’ ” he says. “And I’d think, ‘Well, dang, how is the district supposed to support all of this?’ ”

For the coming school year, Brumley is replacing the district’s patchwork of mostly low-quality curriculum with state-vetted “tier one” curricula that are aligned with Louisiana’s standards for student content knowledge. It may sound wonky, but many K-12 policymakers believe it’s critical.

“Curriculum is a great equalizer,” he says. “It can help a novice teacher who is maybe not as effective as they need to be. And we have a transient population, so as kids move from school to school, they’re exposed to the same curriculum.”

Brumley also asked principals to nominate two teachers from each school who will receive training on mentoring and coaching new teachers and on helping all colleagues master the new curriculum.

Jefferson Parish Public School System

Finally, he applied for and got a $2 million state transformation zone grant — Louisiana’s answer to a requirement in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that states have a plan for addressing the lowest-performing schools. The money will allow for more intensive coaching in the schools struggling the most.

“There isn’t a thing I am unveiling that teachers and community members haven’t asked for repeatedly over the last 100 days,” says Brumley.

‘The Work Has to Be About the Kids’

The wild card, of course, is the district’s political playing field. This fall’s candidate pool is still in formation, but the current lay of the land suggests the November election will be as fractious as past contests.

“The school board elections here can be brutal, like bloody contests with clear winners and losers,” Brumley observes. “I’ve instructed my team to keep their heads down.”

Not only are all nine seats up for election in just three months, but one of two lawsuits filed by two administrators to the board alleging harassment on the part of two board members is still pending. The other was settled in April for $60,000.

Louisiana law does not allow superintendents’ contracts to extend more than two years beyond the replacement of the board that hired them. But the fact that the district’s school transformation zone contract with the state Department of Education runs for three years means that at least some of what Brumley has begun could survive past his tenure.

“I have to protect the work from politics,” says Brumley. “Politics come and go, and so do superintendents. But the work has to outlast both. The work has to be about the kids.”

White believes the stakes are high. “There’s a disinvestment in the public system, a cynicism about the public system that’s not good,” he says. “Absent a vision, [reinvestment] is not going to happen.

“I would just hope that his board supports him,” adds White. “He needs time, and steadfast support, to implement a plan.”

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