Lawyer questions hiring of white coach at Ponchatoula High

An attorney wants a federal judge to review whether Ponchatoula High School violated Tangipahoa Parish’s school desegregation order by hiring a white woman as the school’s girls basketball coach instead of a black man.

School system officials on Tuesday defended the decision, saying they followed the court’s orders when making the hire.

Nelson Taylor, who represents the plaintiffs in the parish’s decades-old desegregation suit, alleges in court filings that a highly qualified black candidate, Robert Wells Jr., was passed over for a white candidate, Patricia Landaiche.

The desegregation order stems from a lawsuit filed against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board in 1965.

The desegregation issue was never fully resolved and went dormant for years, but it was revived in 2007 after black community leaders raised questions about what they called a “continuation of racially segregated schools,” among other issues, according to court records.

The uproar surfaced in 2007 in part after Alden Foster, who is black, was passed over for Amite High School’s football coaching position. Mark Vining, who is white, was awarded the job.

Foster was later named Amite’s coach after a 2008 federal court order from U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle that also required Tangipahoa Parish to devise a desegregation plan. Taylor served as Foster’s attorney in that case.

Taylor said in a telephone interview Tuesday that Wells’ situation differs from Foster’s case because Wells was passed over for a teaching and coaching position. Foster had applied only for a coaching job.

Taylor said hiring Wells, who has a master’s degree, would help the school system address its low black teacher employment rate, which at times has fallen to 18 percent.

“We’re looking to try to increase the black teachers in that parish,” he said. “This person is highly qualified.”

Taylor’s court motion says that any Tangipahoa Parish principal who rejects a qualified black job applicant must submit reasons for the refusal to a review committee. The committee then scrutinizes the decision and makes a hiring recommendation to the superintendent.

If the black applicant is still rejected, Taylor argues, the plaintiffs can request to have the matter resolved in court.

Taylor said Tuesday a three-person panel reviewed the decision to hire Landaiche. One member recommended Wells, while another member recommended Landaiche.

The third person recused herself, saying her daughter was a member of the basketball team.

Instead of replacing the third panel member, Superintendent Mark Kolwe sided with Ponchatoula High School Principal Danny Strickland and went with Landaiche, Taylor said.

Charles Patin, a desegregation attorney for the School Board, said Kolwe’s decision to hire Landaiche was correct based on Landaiche’s qualifications for the job.

Patin also questioned whether Taylor’s motion was filed in a timely manner.

“We will vigorously defend the matter,” Patin said.

Kolwe said Tuesday he stands by his decision to hire Landaiche. “I feel comfortable that we did everything within the order when I made that recommendation,” he said.

Strickland declined comment.

A hearing is set Oct. 30 in Lemelle’s courtroom in the Eastern District of Louisiana.