[StBernard] St. Bernard schools boss Doris Voitier showed the courage to care

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Apr 29 14:57:45 EDT 2007

St. Bernard schools boss Doris Voitier showed the courage to care
Posted by By Paul Rioux, St. Tammany bureau April 28, 2007 10:19PM
Categories: Breaking News
Doris Voitier's long-simmering impatience had finally turned to anger.

Frustrated by the glacial pace of federal recovery aid after Hurricane
Katrina, the St. Bernard Parish school superintendent had already made an
end run around FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers by taking out a $17.8
million emergency loan to buy portable classrooms and more than 100 travel
trailers for teachers.

Then, with the district poised to reopen a school in the fall of 2005, a
scant 11 weeks after Katrina had swamped the parish, a FEMA official called
to tell her that despite previous assurances, the agency could not pay for
hot school lunches for the first week while the district scrambled to repair
a natural gas line.

Why not cold sandwiches, the official asked, or military MREs?

But with some students sleeping in tents outside their ruined homes or
commuting to school from up to two hours away, Voitier was adamant: The
students at St. Bernard Unified School would be served "real food."

So she hired a Chalmette restaurant owner to cook meals on a barge in the
Mississippi River and sent FEMA the bill for $27,000.

"That was it for me. After that, I just quit asking for their approval and
spent several months in crisis mode, making deals with handshakes in parking
lots," she said. "I figured that as long as I didn't pocket any money, what
could anybody do to me? Haul me off to jail?"

The vignette is classic Voitier, say those who work with her.

While some state and federal education officials were prepared to write off
the entire school year after Katrina laid waste to the parish in late August
2005, Voitier and other district leaders refused to entertain such a notion.
And in mid-November 2005 more than 300 students returned to school at a
makeshift campus using trailers, generators and a large tent for a cafeteria
-- serving those hot meals.

And far from being arrested, Voitier and other school leaders have been
widely praised for their efforts to rebuild the devastated school system. No
doubt, the school district remains a work in progress and is a shadow of its
former self: Three schools and 3,800 students compared with 8,800 students
in 14 schools pre-Katrina. But in a region where recovery has come in
painfully small increments, the rebirth of St. Bernard's public school
system stands out.

The improbable turnaround has earned Voitier several awards, but the biggest
honor came last month when she was announced as a recipient of the 2007 John
F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, one of the most prestigious national
awards for public officials.

The Kennedy Library Foundation said Voitier was chosen for her "courageous
fight to rebuild the St. Bernard Parish Schools in the face of pervasive
devastation and bureaucratic indifference."

Voitier said she simply did whatever it took to get a school open as quickly
as possible, widely viewed as a critical step in St. Bernard's recovery.

"If we had waited for FEMA or someone else to come in and do it for us, I
think our community would have died," she said. "Who would come back if
there weren't any schools?"

Voitier, who has worked for the school system for more than 30 years and
took over as superintendent in 2004, is quick to share the credit, saying
she will accept the award at a May 21 ceremony in Boston on behalf of all
the school system's employees.

"The only reason we're coming back is because we have such a strong team of
devoted teachers, administrators, staff members and school board members,"
said Voitier, who modestly wears a name tag at work despite her high-profile
position. "No one person could do this."

That's beyond dispute, but after Katrina exposed failures of leadership at
all levels of government, Voitier's can-do mind-set and hands-on stewardship
of the St. Bernard schools stands out as a rare success story.

Days after the disaster, the St. Bernard Parish School Board gave wide
latitude to Voitier, who rode out the storm at Chalmette High School,
overseeing a shelter of last resort for 250 people, including two boys on
ventilators who were kept alive by a camping generator as the school was
inundated by 8 feet of water that remained for days.

"We told Doris, 'Do what you've got to do,'¤" board member Joe Long said.
"She took the ball and ran with it because there was no one to tell her,
'No.' "

Voitier, who had prided herself on spotless audits as the school system's
former financial director, said she spent the first few weeks bending and
breaking more rules than she had in her entire life.

She started by going to a Baton Rouge bank and lumping money from different
school accounts together to cover the payroll and employees'
$1-million-a-month health insurance premiums.

"I needed cash, and I didn't care where it came from," she said. "I figured
that I could sort it all out later."

Having staved off financial collapse, Voitier assumed the federal government
would send recovery experts and truckloads of cash to help rebuild the
school system. Instead, she found herself in a seemingly endless series of
meetings to discuss FEMA rules and regulations.

"We figured the cavalry was coming, but that didn't happen," she said.
"That's when my anger started to rise. You can't be angry at a storm, but
it's extremely frustrating when you can't get the help you need in a timely

While it may have taken longer than anyone would have wanted to get federal
recovery money flowing to St. Bernard schools, FEMA spokesman Andrew Thomas
said the agency has obligated $244.6 million to rebuild the school system.

"In order to get them every penny they had coming, FEMA has a process and
steps that we have to go through," said Thomas, who did not know how much
the system has received so far. "That's what we've done, and that's what we
continue to do."

He offered his congratulations to Voitier on receiving the Kennedy award.
"Who could not applaud her efforts?" he said. "That's my personal opinion."

The original plan was to "mission assign," in federal bureaucrat-speak, the
construction of two schools to the Army Corps of Engineers. But when it
became clear that the buildings wouldn't be completed until spring 2006 at
the earliest, Voitier took matters into her own hands.

She spent more than $3 million on 22 portable classrooms and 107 travel
trailers for school employees, almost all of whom lost their homes and were
having trouble getting trailers from FEMA.

Voitier said she spent an average of $22,000 to purchase and install the
travel trailers, a little more than a third of the $60,000 news reports said
FEMA was paying on average for each trailer it installed after Katrina.

"I told FEMA, 'You do your thing, I'll do mine and we'll settle up when I
have time to breathe,'¤" she said.

Voitier was soon breathing easier as her decision to bypass FEMA resulted in
dramatic progress on the network of trailers, tents and renovated
second-floor classrooms at Chalmette High that would become the St. Bernard
Unified School.

"The more that I just did things without waiting for approval, the more
empowering it became," she said. "You get caught up in the challenge, and
when you start to see some results, it spurs you on."

So much so that she said it has been difficult this school year to change
gears from crisis mode to something closer to business as usual.

"It's hard to take a step back and be more inclusive in making decisions and
to reinstate the procedures that were in place before the storm," she said.
"It's so much easier to be a little dictator and say, 'We're going to do
this and this and this.' "

These days, there are no more parking-lot deals sealed with handshakes, but
Voitier has clearly earned the School Board's trust and retains broad
control over the school system's recovery efforts.

At a recent meeting, the board approved with little discussion her
recommendations to award architectural contracts to renovate several more
schools. The contracts for the multimillion-dollar projects had been
presented at a board subcommittee meeting, but even then there were few

Voitier admits her own management style is decidedly more hands-on. When
employees brief her on projects, for instance, she often asks so many
questions that they sometimes feel like they're being grilled.

"We have some extremely competent people, but it's a quirk in my personality
that I have to know everything," she said. "It's something the storm has

Voitier grew up in New Orleans and lived at the corner of St. Claude Avenue
and Dumaine Street near the French Quarter until the city bought the house
when she was 10 to create Louis Armstrong Park. Her family moved to Moss
Street along Bayou St. John, and she graduated from Mount Carmel Academy.

After earning a teaching degree from the University of New Orleans in 1971,
she got a job as a math teacher at Chalmette High School, an all-boys school
at the time.

"Doris was a fantastic teacher from the day she walked in the door,"
recalled Wayne Warner, Chalmette High's longtime principal who was an
assistant principal at the time. "She wasn't much older than the students,
but she was definitely in command of the class."

He said she displayed that same sense of control in dealing with Katrina's

"She knew what had to be done and had the fortitude to do it and worry about
the repercussions afterwards," Warner said.

But Voitier wasn't always so self-assured in the face of what sometimes
seemed like an insurmountable task.

Assistant superintendent Bev Lawrason recalled a conversation she had with
Voitier while they were working late one night in Baton Rouge a couple of
weeks after the storm.

"She asked, 'Why did this have to happen when I was superintendent?,' and I
told her, 'Because you can handle it,'¤" Lawrason said. "We kind of laughed
and got back to work."

Named after President Kennedy's Pulitzer-winning book about eight U.S.
Senators who took principled yet unpopular positions, the Profile in Courage
Award was created in 1989 and has typically been given to just one or two
people worldwide each year.

Joining Voitier in receiving the award this year is Houston Mayor Bill
White, who spearheaded efforts to provide refuge for tens of thousands of
Katrina evacuees.

While Voitier is clearly gratified to receive the Kennedy award, she speaks
most proudly about another recent citation: the announcement last month that
the rebuilt St. Bernard schools had received accreditation from the Southern
Association of Colleges and Schools.

Voitier said the coveted designation is a testament that in the wake of all
the chaos and destruction, children are still learning.

"It is extremely important to have someone from the outside come in and let
the community know that we have a top-quality education program," she said.
"We're not just baby-sitting kids in trailers."

Although the St. Bernard Unified School opened before the system had
received one dime of federal aid, Voitier said she doesn't hold a grudge
against the parade of FEMA liaisons assigned to the school system, including
FEMA Bob, FEMA Brett, FEMA Jerry, FEMA Jim and FEMA Susan.

"They were all good people, but none of them could break away from the rules
and regulations to keep things moving," she said. "They would always say,
'I'd love to help you, but the rules say ...' "

While Voitier's willingness to bend the rules didn't land her in jail, there
was one brush with the law: She was told that FEMA's inspector general was
investigating her for misappropriation of federal property because she moved
an extra trailer at the school to a site housing teachers' trailers, where
it was used as a laundry.

"I didn't misappropriate it; I moved it because our teachers were having to
drive about an hour just to do their laundry," she said. "I told them to
send the inspector general down here, and we'll see who looks silly."

The investigator never came, and FEMA has slowly but surely been reimbursing
St. Bernard schools for the emergency expenditures to reopen a school as
soon as possible after the storm.

After seven months of appeals, FEMA even paid the $27,000 bill for the hot

On the menu that first day was spaghetti and meatballs, a longtime favorite
of schoolchildren that proved to be especially comforting given Katrina's

Voitier said she was watching children file into a large canvas tent used as
a cafeteria when a 10-year-old boy turned excitedly to a friend in line and
said, "God, real food!"

It was all she needed to hear to know that she had made the right decision.

"I know it sounds corny, but it kind of tears you up. It was the first time
they felt like they had eaten a real meal since the storm," she said. "For
the first time in nearly three months, they had a sense of normalcy, a
feeling that they were finally back home."

Paul Rioux can be reached at prioux at timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2852.

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