Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on the Lafayette Parish School Board district candidates.
LAFAYETTE — A salesman and an attorney are squaring off for a seat on the Lafayette Parish School Board, seeking to represent residents who live in District 7.
Mark Cockerham, R-Lafayette, is seeking his second full term on the board. He was first appointed in 2007, following the death of longtime board member David Thibodaux, and faced no opposition for a special election planned in fall 2007 for the seat. He won re-election in 2010 with 70 percent of the vote.
“Putting kids first is my first priority, and to get some trust back from the public in how we spend money is my second,” said Cockerham, who works in oilfield sales.
If re-elected, he said, he could offer leadership for incoming new members and work toward restoring the public’s trust in the board.
“We’ve lost it completely,” he said. “We have some really good people stepping up and running. I think we have the candidates to start that process of healing.”
Dawn Morris, an attorney who specializes in insurance litigation, agreed that board relations should be a priority for the new board when members take office in January. The dysfunction among board members and the administration is “crippling the forward progress for the kids and for the teachers,” she said.
Her desire to correct that dysfunction is what initially piqued her interest in the election. But she said she also believes her legal expertise offers her a chance to contribute to the school system.
Morris previously handled litigation for the Lafayette Parish School Board and now assists the Vermilion Parish school system’s on-staff attorney in some legal matters.
Morris said she wants to help the district work to improve student achievement through the recruitment and retention of experienced teachers.
She said she’d also like to see the board revamp its teacher evaluation system to address concerns some teachers have over the fairness of the current model that takes into account students’ performance on pre- and post-tests.
“Local school boards are permitted to develop their own evaluation system as long as it’s in line with what the state imposes,” Morris said.
The board is preparing for a hearing scheduled next month for Superintendent Pat Cooper to defend himself against charges that he violated board policy, state law and his contract in making some personnel and budgetary decisions. The hearing could lead to potential discipline ranging from suspension to termination. Cooper denies the charges.
The hearing is the culmination of more than 18 months of divisiveness.
Cockerham is one of three board members who has consistently supported Cooper and his initiatives. He said he wants to continue his work on the board to use his skills to rebuild the public’s trust in the board.
“Because of my communication and listening to the public, I think I could play a crucial role in that area. We need to have people who know how to communicate and how to listen to the public and not block them out and bring them in on the issues,” Cockerham said.
Both candidates agreed that the board needs to address growth in the Youngsville and Broussard areas and build new schools in the southern part of the parish.
Morris and Cockerham also support the district turnaround plan that was approved within the first months Cooper took over as superintendent in 2012. The plan includes initiatives to improve district performance.
Morris said the turnaround plan contains good initiatives but said she wants to see the document revised and evaluated.
“What’s working and what’s not working? We need to revise as necessary so we can make sure all of our resources are being used appropriately,” Morris said.
Finding additional revenue for the school system is another major issue, Cockerham said.
“We need to prioritize our objectives and see where we want to spend the money,” he said.
Cockerham said he’d like to see the board create a finance committee to work out a budgetary vision for the school system.
Voters go to the polls on Nov. 4, and their choice takes office in January. Morris wants to see Cockerham’s term end before then. She’s joined a lawsuit filed in district court earlier this month that claims Cockerham should be removed from office because he’s moved out of his district.
Based on district maps in effect until the end of the year, Cockerham lives in District 9. However, based on new maps that go into effect in January and that were used for qualifying in the election, Cockerham lives in District 7.
Cockerham said he checked the map before moving, not realizing he was using the updated version that did not take effect until January. He has refused to step down, saying he’ll let a judge work it out. The matter is still pending.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.