Central School Board Leader Retires, Kept Tight Handle on Taxes, Spending

Will Easley has resigned after 14 years as a member of the Central Community School Board.  He left a legacy that can never be duplicated.  Now he said he plans to spend more time with Dot, his wife of 52 years, and his cattle.

When the Central Community School System was created by a constitutional amendment in November 2006, the late Gov. Kathleen Blanco had to appoint the initial seven members of the new Central school board.

One of the people Sen. Bodi White and Rep. Donald Ray Kennard recommended to the governor was Will Easley, a successful businessman, founder of Trade Construction, and a cattleman. Easley graduated from Greensburg High and grew up in St. Helena Parish. He was not a Central native, which immediately came into play. Easley came to Central in 1970 and was a “newcomer” to some.

Hiring 1st Superintendent

Hiring the school system’s superintendent was the first order of business for the new Central school board in February 2007.

Several candidates applied, and the leading candidate and favorite of the community was Central High principal Ronnie Devall.  The Central City News even endorsed Mr. Deval 

A large crowd gathered at Kristenwood meeting hall to watch the new school board debate and vote for superintendent.  In the first round, Mike Faulk received three votes, while John McCann and Ronnie Devall each received two. Much to the surprise of many, new board members Will Easley, Ruby Foil, and Morris Anderson voted for Faulk — an unpopular decision, to say the least.

On the second ballot, the vote was the same.

The third ballot was between McCann and Devall to determine who would make it to the next round.  McCann won 5-2.

With the local favorite eliminated, most in the audience were unclear what would happen next, but Faulk beat McCann 4-3.

Afterwards, school board president Russell Starns, who had supported McCann, urged the community to rally behind Mr. Faulk, and they did.

The choice proved to be a good one, as Central quickly rose to be the No. 2 school system in the state under Faulk’s leadership, which lasted 10 years.

Looking back on the fateful decision to choose Mike Faulk as superintendent, Will Easley said he knew the community supported Ronnie Devall, and he too admired Mr. Devall.  “But I was looking for someone who actually had experience running a successful school system,” Easley said. Faulk had been superintendent in Morehouse Parish and had a great deal of experience at that level.

Will Easley said one of the reasons he was able to make the hard decision was “I’m wasn’t from here. I wasn’t close to any of the candidates, so I could be objective.” 

First School Board Office

From January to July 2007, the new school system was in a very unusual position. Legally, the school board existed, the superintendent was on board, and the process of hiring faculty and administration was underway.  However, tax revenues could not be collected until about August 1.  As a result, the new school system was flat broke and had literally no money to work with.

Community leaders began soliciting contributions to bridge the gap in order to pay Supt. Faulk and a skeleton staff.

An office was needed, but again there was no money.  So Will Easley stepped forward.  Space had been secured in the shopping center behind Capital One on Hooper Road next to the offices now occupied by Central City Hall.  Without fanfare, Will Easley purchased most of the construction materials and used his employees to build-out a beautiful suite of offices for the school board — using no taxpayer funds! Gil Matherne donated the phone system and other things. Clif Richardson donated the electrical, and Melissa Guilbeau gathered contributions.

Saving for a Rainy Day

Not long after the board began receiving tax dollars in August 2007 from property and sales taxes, Will Easley began his quiet 14-year campaign to make sure the Central school system ran a tight ship financially.

“You have to run it like a business, or you’ll have big problems,” Easley said. The other board members supported him, but there was always pressure to spent money the system didn’t have, especially for salaries.

Nevertheless, Easley continued to hold the line, arguing that the system needed to save its money for the rainy day he knew would come sooner or later.

The Rainy Day Came

The rainy day came in August 2016 when the people of Central suffered a devastating 1,000-year flood that destroyed or damaged more than 80 percent of the homes in Central.

All of Central public schools suffered damage in the flood but Tanglewood Elementary was especially hit hard.  It was a close question whether to declare the school a total loss and tear it down, or to rebuild the school completely.

Throughout the Baton Rouge area, public school systems were facing the same problem — flooded schools that had to be replaced or rebuilt.  No one knew what to do.  The federal government was making promises but no one knew for sure that they would keep them.  The other school districts in the Baton Rouge area kept waiting.

However, thanks to the frugal policies of Will Easley and the school board, the Central school system didn’t have to wait for anything.  By 2016, millions of taxpayers dollars had been put away for a rainy day.  

So the superintendent and school board simply hired an architect, approved plans, went out for bids, and started construction of a completely re-built Tanglewood Elementary School. By December 2016, the new school was complete!  It was occupied in January 2017.  By comparison, construction of new schools for Livingston Parish didn’t even begin until the summer of 2017. Some districts took four years.

Once again, Will Easley’s foresight paid off for the Central community.

A New School Complex

Soon after the Central Community School System was created, enrollment in Central school exploded.  It was clear that additional classroom space was desperately needed.  In addition, the physical condition of several of the schools was poor, and one school, Central Middle School, was filled with asbestos.  Part of the school had been condemned nearly 20 years before and was sitting there rotting. Additional schools were needed. So the school board proposed to the public a $105 million capital improvement program.  However, the plan was too large for taxpayers to accept, and the proposal was soundly defeated.

The school board studied the results and took the voters message to heart.  It was clear the people wanted new schools but they wanted a more modest, less costly plan.  So they proposed a $55 million building program, and it passed the voters!

The major feature of the program was the massive new Central School Complex, which was to house Central Middle School and Central Intermediate School.

Being True to Your Word

When explained to the voters, the tax increase to pay for the schools was supposed to have been imposed for 20 years and would end after that.  

However, after the tax passed, a story in the Central City News showed that the language authorizing the tax mistakenly provided that it would be imposed indefinitely — not for 20 years!  When Will Easley read the story, he couldn’t believe his eyes.  He knew the tax was supposed to be for 20 years, not permanent. “I told people it would expire after 20 years!” he said.

He felt he had misled the voters and insisted that the mistake be corrected. So he introduced a proposal to repeal the tax that had already been adopted and reimpose it for not to exceed 20 years.  

To do such a thing was unheard of!  And it was not a small undertaking.  It meant holding a special meeting of the school board to authorize going to the voters to repeal one tax and imposing another. Since no one in these parts had ever heard of a tax being repealed or reduced, it was obviously going to be a monumental task to inform people what was going on and convince them it wasn’t a scam.

However, the school board and the Central City News campaigned hard to explain the tax reduction. The voters got the message, and the formerly permanent tax was reduced to a maximum of 20 years.

To some, this exercise may seem novel and quite unnecessary. The people didn’t really understand they had been misled, but for Will Easley it meant everything. It was about doing what was right and letting people know that they could trust the school board — and him — to do what they said.

Raising Property Taxes

Without Vote of the People

Every four years, taxing bodies in Louisiana have a rather sneaky, underhanded way of raising property taxes without a vote of the people.  

Under the Louisiana Constitution, property has to be reappraised every four years and property taxes have to be adjusted downward in order to produce the same dollar amount in taxes as the previous year.  This is called rolling the millage rate downward.  It occurs automatically without a taxing body doing anything.

However, by a 2/3rds vote, a taxing body can roll property taxes forward to the previous millage rate, thereby raising everyone’s property taxes! This is done routinely by almost every taxing authority in the state. The next year, property owners get higher tax bills but they never quite know why or who to blame.

When the new Central school board faced reappraisal of property for the first time, the roll-back or roll-forward issue created a major controversy on the board.  The board president wanted to roll the millage rate forward.  However, Will Easley stood firm and said that would be wrong. It would result in raising property taxes without a vote of the people.  “I don’t mind if people want to vote to raise their own taxes, but I don’t support raising their taxes without their permission,” he said.

Will Easley won the day and established a precedent. From that time until today, the Central Community School Board has never rolled property taxes forward or imposed a tax increase without a vote of the people.

Handling Details

When the new $46 million Central School Complex was under construction, Will Easley was on site almost everyday.  That’s quite unusual for a school board member — in fact almost unprecedented.  However, Mr. Easley wanted everything done right.  So he used his construction experience and constantly checked the materials and the labor to make sure it was!  The result was one of the finest school facilities in the South.

No Wages, No Expenses

Throughout his service on the Central school board, Will Easley has never accept a monthly salary, a per diem, or expense reimbursement for travel.  It’s all just his way of giving back to the community.

By the way, there are no “retirement” benefits for Will Easley.  He never paid into any kind of school board retirement fund, and he won’t get a retirement of any kind as a result of his service.

Who Is Willard Easley?

Will Easley was raised on family property in the community of Easleyville in the northern part of St. Helena Parish.  In those days, it was mostly dairy farms.  Today the land is largely in timber.

The son of Jimmy and Jewel Easley, Will learned early about the importance of hard work.

He played football at Greensburg High School and graduated in the Class of 1962.

Will Easley got into construction. In 1970, he and his wife Dot moved to Denham Road in Central.  He worked in the shop in the back of his house.  He began to get orders from industry, and the business outgrew the shop behind the house.

From that home-based business, Trade Construction Company grew over the years to what is now a company doing tens of millions of dollars a year in business.

What Is Next for Will Easley?

A few years ago, Will retired from Trade Construction, and the Easley’s son Brennen took over the business with the help of their daughter, Andi Kirkpatrick.

Will still helps out from time to time but he no longer has any day-to-day obligations.

What Will does have to do every day is tend to his cattle at his ranch in St. Helena Parish just two miles from the property where he grew up.

Will loves working his cattle, and enjoys teaching the cattle business to his grandsons Bennett Easley, Clay Easley, Harrison Kirkpatrick, and Britt Harrison.

So what will Will Easley do now that he’s retired from service on the school board? 

“I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing now but spending more time with Dot, our grandkids including Katlyn Easley and Hayes Kirkpatrick, and with the cattle,” he said.

Will and Dot have been married 52 years.

Son Brennen says his dad has taken to watching a lot of Westerns when he’s at the house. “Mama is getting tired of those Westerns, so I don’t think that will last much longer!” he laughed.

Brennen is proud of his father.

“He’s a very humble man. He won’t talk about himself.”

“He won’t tell you, but besides driving up to the northern part of St. Helena Parish everyday to take care of the cattle, he also takes care of his brother Lester, the last of his five brothers.  He goes by twice a day to take care of his needs.”

Will Easley does have a new project, and son Brennen is excited about it.  Central Private is building a new high school on the corner of Joor and Gurney roads in Central.  The next part of the project will be building a new elementary school and then athletic facilities.

However, before the elementary school or the gym are built, the money has to be raised to pay for them.  Will has agreed to devote some of his time to raising the money for these worthwhile projects.

Whatever Will Easley undertakes seems to get done the right way!

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