Some of state Rep. Harold Ritchie's constituents were pretty peeved when they learned the Bogalusa Democrat had given his coveted full-ride scholarship to Tulane University to the son of 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed perhaps the north shore's most powerful politician for two years running.
Among the aggrieved was Randall Ginn, the football coach at Franklinton High School, who fired off an angry note to Ritchie, giving him the what-for for not finding a kid who needed the help more than Reed's son.
Ginn, who also teaches civics, included an 'open invitation' for the veteran legislator to visit his class and explain himself. So Ritchie decided to make lemonade. He visited the school this week and asked Ginn's students for ideas on how to reform the Tulane legislative scholarship program, which has been plagued by political favoritism for much of its 130-year history.
'I think some of these young men and woman might grow up to be investigative reporters,' Ritchie said with a laugh. 'They're pretty tough.'
Under a series of agreements between Tulane, the city and the state dating to the 1880s, the private university is excused from sales taxes and some property tax, while each of the 144 state legislators can dispense a full-ride, one-year scholarship to a Louisiana student each year. The mayor of New Orleans also annually doles out five full four-year awards.
Ritchie said the Franklinton students came up with a number of worthy ideas targeting the program's shortcomings, which he hopes to turn into legislation. Among them: Barring legislators from taking political contributions from scholarship recipients or their parents; requiring that disclosure forms filled out by recipients be public; and adding some sort of means testing for the scholarship.
Those would be major changes. A joint investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV found that at least a quarter of the 144 legislators who awarded scholarships in 2012 received campaign donations from relatives of the scholarship recipients. In a number of cases, the contributions were sizeable.
And while all scholarship recipients must fill out forms saying whether they are related to a politician, the state Legislature has refused to provide the records. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office has taken a different tack; his administration allowed reporters from the two news organizations to view the identical forms filled out by recipients of mayoral scholarships.
Ritchie thinks the forms should be public.
'We need to open this thing up so that if an elected official has a child who does get this scholarship, the public will have this information,' Ritchie said.
Currently, the program isn't means tested meaning that a student's ability to pay for a Tulane education is not a factor in the award unless a legislator decides to make it one. In the case that landed Ritchie in front of the Franklinton High civics class, the 2012 and 2013 awards went to Reagan Reed even though Reed's father has an annual income of at least $320,000, according to his state disclosure forms.
'It is my belief after viewing all their questions that they were more upset the scholarship didn't go to a local lower income student than they were of who it actually went to,' Ginn told The New Orleans Advocate.
Both Ginn and Ritchie agreed the meeting was a productive one, both for the students and for the lawmaker.
'I had a good day with them,' said Ritchie. 'I told him I was glad he issued the challenge.'
Some other legislators, notably state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, say they want to reform the program or scrap it altogether. The newsletter LaPolitics Weekly, which first wrote about Ritchie's planned visit to Franklinton High, quoted Senate President John Alario saying that Tulane president Scott Cowen is 'working on revising policies' for the awards. Tulane spokesman Mike Strecker declined to offer details, saying that the university's talks with the Legislature 'are in the preliminary stages. We do not want to conjecture or comment about possible outcomes.'
Ritchie said he's been in touch with several colleagues who also want to make changes.
'Hopefully between my civics class and the rest of them we'll be able to draft some legislation that passes the smell test in Baton Rouge,' he said.
Along with reforming the program's rules, Ritchie promised to do a better job of publicizing the scholarships. One of the things that most bothered the students and Ginn was that Reed doesn't even live in the district, which is one of the more impoverished legislative districts in the region.
In his original email to Ritchie, Ginn wrote: 'My own two sons graduated here in 2009 and 2012 and while they may not have gotten the award it would have been nice to compete for it since I'm paying for their current colleges on a $48,000 per year teacher/coach salary.'
Ginn said he was frustrated when he penned his original note, and he complimented Ritchie for accepting the student's suggestions.
'We really appreciated him accepting our invitation to address this issue,' he said.