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Knight vs. WPSB continued…

by Minden Press-Herald

Editors Note:

This is a continuation of yesterday’s Echoes of Our Past

As part of his overall public relations campaign, Richardson put together a presentation, featuring photos and diagrams describing his efforts in Webster Parish and “hit the road” having speaking engagements in all parts of the country touting the “Webster Parish system.” (Until just a few years ago, remnants of the traveling display were still housed at the Webster Parish School Board offices.) National educational publications wrote of the success in Webster Parish and Richardson basically spent his summers making presentations all across the nation.

Not surprisingly, job offers began to come to Richardson, and while he did manage to leverage those offers into two pay raises, he remained in Minden and seemed satisfied. However, in 1925, he received an offer from an unnamed school district in Texas that seemed to be too generous for him to turn down.

Under the terms of his most recent one-year contract with Webster Parish, Richardson was paid $4000 per year (roughly $58,000 in 2019 dollars) provided a house to live in and a travel budget. The offer from Texas paid more, approximately $5000 ($73,000 today) with similar perks and the additional suggestion that the outside interference to his control would be much less in the ISD structure in Texas. In June 1925, Richardson discussed the offer with  W. G. Stewart, President of the Webster Parish School Board and indicated he was strongly leaning toward accepting the Texas offer.

In a specially called meeting held the second week of July, the School Board made an effort to solve the problem. The Board unanimously approved a glowing resolution of support for Richardson and raised his salary to $5000 per year, matching the Texas offer. The immediate reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Two prominent local citizens, Joe R. Miller and J. B. Snell (former principal of Minden High School and future School Board President) made lengthy remarks in favor of Richardson’s work before the vote was taken. After passage, editorials praising the action were printed by the Shreveport Journal and the Baton Rouge State Times and letter of congratulations were received from Dean Ives, State Superintendent of Education T. H. Harris, the head of the Louisiana Teacher’s Association and the Superintendents of Schools from Caddo, DeSoto and other parishes throughout the state.

So, it seemed the problem of retaining Richardson had been solved, and essentially it had been for more than a decade, before he eventually left Webster Parish to become President of Louisiana Tech in 1936. But the September session of the 2nd District Court saw a new problem arise. On September 15, 1925, Seth David Knight of Springhill, father of three children in the Webster Parish School system, filed a suit in the court, challenging the pay raise for Richardson. Knight, born in 1869 in Ottumwa, Iowa (don’t know if he had any ties to Walter “Radar” O’Reilly of M*A*S*H who also claimed Ottumwa as home), was living in Webster Parish by 1908. In that year he spoke at the reunion held by the Camp Henry Gray of the United Confederate Veterans at the Timothy community in North Webster. That is rather odd considering his heritage as a northerner. What brought him to our area is not clear, he is listed in the Census records as a farmer, so he did not come to work with the timber or railroad industry that brought so much immigration to this area in those years. Records during the years of the farm depression in the 1920s indicate he was a cotton farmer as in 1926, he pledged to reduce his cotton planting by 25% in the community effort to raise cotton prices by increasing demand.

Knight’s petition claimed that the School Board’s action violated Act 120 of 1916, passed by the Louisiana Legislature. That law stated that the annual salary of parish superintendents of schools shall not be more than $4000 nor less than $900. On the surface, it appeared that Knight had cited an “open-and-shut” violation of the law and the raise would have to be rescinded. However, things are not always what they seem. District Judge John S. Richardson (no close relation to E. S. Richardson) took the case under advisement and announced on October 8 that it was going to require further analysis to reach a valid decision. In the interim, he let the increased salary remain in place and Richardson stayed on the job with the higher pay. 

Judge Richardson held the case for over six months, and finally on May 29, 1926, he handed down his ruling. The jurist found in favor of the plaintiff, Knight, and ordered the pay increase revoked. Richardson’s salary was immediately reduced, back to the $4000 per year. The ruling sparked an outcry in educational circles, particularly from the Superintendent of Schools in Caddo Parish, E. Weldon Jones. Jones penned a letter to the Shreveport Times in which he pointed out that he, and several others superintendents in the state, made much more than the $4000 limit and that the result of this ruling would be a loss of many capable leaders for Louisiana schools. District Attorney William D. Goff of the 2nd District announced immediately he was filing an appeal with the Louisiana State Supreme Court. 

Goff’s appeal would be based on the nuances of the constantly changing nature of Louisiana law. The ordinance cited to overrule the pay raise had been put in place under the Louisiana Constitution of 1913. A problematic document that had been written in a convention that proved to operate largely outside its legal parameters. Nearly every guideline set in place by that document had been challenged and usually reversed. The problems with that constitution had led to the passage of the new 1921 Constitution. At its core, the gist of the argument to reverse Richardson’s ruling was this.

 The 1913 Constitution had specifically given the power to set salaries for superintendents to the legislature. However, the 1921 Constitution had strikingly different language and made no specific mention of legislative control over salaries. Further, Act 100 of 1922 specifically outlined the procedure for the hiring of superintendents. It placed entire control over the matter to local School Boards and omitted any mention of legislative control over salaries. Thus Goff contended that the Constitution of 1921 voided the law passed in 1916 and the 1922 statute clarified that the matter of pay was strictly left up to the discretion of the parish School Board.

The appeal was promptly filed and began its long and tedious journey through the system. It would take more than a year for the matter to be settled. I have to wonder if private arrangements were not being made to compensate E. S. Richardson for the pay he was losing while the matter was being adjudicated, but there is no written evidence of such. Finally, on October 4, 1927, more than two years after the approval of the pay increase and more than16 months after it had been suspended, the Court spoke on the issue. In an opinion written by Justice David N. Thompson, the court ruled that the 1922 law negated the 1916 regulation cited by Judge Richardson. It further stated that it was clear from the record that the power to hire and to set salaries for superintendents of schools in Louisiana rested solely in the hands of the parish School Board.

Thus Richardson’s salary returned to the $500) figure and he continued his successful tenure as Superintendent of Schools. As mentioned earlier he remained in the post until being named President of Louisiana Tech in 1936. After he was removed from that job when Sam Jones purged all officials appointed by the Long organization from state jobs. Richardson returned to Minden where during World War II he headed the Webster Council a quasi-governmental organization that coordinated actions between government, civilian and military groups to support the war effort. After retiring from that post he moved to Ruston, where he died in 1950. Knight does not appear again in the local news and he died in 1948 at the age of 80 and is buried in the Timothy Cemetery. This Echo of the Past reminds us that all decisions involving government policy and public money are complex, no matter how simple they may seem and often take the intervention and direction of the courts to be resolved. 

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald

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