(Editor’s note: This is the sixth story in a series on the Lafayette Parish School Board district races.)
LAFAYETTE — Both candidates for the District 4 Lafayette Parish School Board seat say they’ll be a champion for schools in their district, which has some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.
Incumbent Tehmi Chassion, concluding his first term on the board, said he’s seeking re-election because of the current D and F ratings of schools in his district.
District 4 includes J.W. Faulk Elementary, the district’s only F-rated school. The grade is based on state accountability standards that take into account factors such as students’ performance on standardized tests.
Political newcomer Erica Williams said she feels her educational background could benefit District 4.
“I feel like the community, District 4, is going backwards in terms of education,” she said. “I feel like it will take a strong leader to transform the community and put education first on our list again.”
If elected, Williams said, her first priority is to ensure the board implements the district’s turnaround plan, and she’d like to see the board pay for it by restoring an expired property tax as well as using the district’s rainy day fund.
“In doing that, we’re able to address the D and F schools,” she said. “We have to make sure that we have the resources to achieve academic success.”
She said she’d like to see the board provide more oversight of the turnaround plan and also invest more in preschool education.
“The plan needs to be a living document that we can alter segments of it if it’s not working,” she said. “We don’t want parts that are not working draining our resources. We need to implement other things that will work in its place.”
Williams said she thinks the board will need to dip into its financial reserves to fund priorities within the turnaround plan.
“I don’t think that there’s a way to get around that,” she said. “We have money over the three-month reserve. I think that money can assist with the turnaround plan implementation.”
Chassion said he’d like to see more resources dedicated to those students who have fallen academically behind and more schools adopt interventions that Faulk has implemented this year, such as additional time or double-blocking classes in math and English. Faulk has also implemented in-school tutoring, he said.
“If it’s somehow possible within the budget, and I know that we’re in tough times and tough budget restraints, but I think we need to lower the teacher-student ratio further,” he said.
The current board faced major budget limitations this year due to a $23.5 million shortfall — the largest the school system has faced. Chassion and a majority of the board disagreed with Superintendent Pat Cooper on the best way to bridge that shortfall and adopted a budget not proposed by Cooper, but rather a spending plan a majority of the board amended. The 2014-15 budget remains in flux. The Louisiana Department of Education informed Cooper the board didn’t legally adopt the spending plan because it made substantial changes to it without another public hearing on those proposed changes. Cooper has asked a judge to allow the incoming board to make decisions on the 2014-15 budget come January.
Williams said she thinks the new board could offer a fresh perspective on the budget, while Chassion said the 2014-15 budget is the responsibility of the current board.
Chassion said his opponent and others in the community have been critical of the board’s budgetary decisions, but he said the board protected resources at Faulk and other low-performing schools. The board lowered the student-teacher ratio at the school to 17-to-1 and also approved additional teacher slots at the school to further lower class sizes, he said.
Chassion said he thinks for many voters the election hinges on candidates’ views on Cooper.
Chassion is part of a majority of board members who voted in support of an investigation of the superintendent and accepted charges against Cooper, who faces potential disciplinary action, which could include termination. An administrative hearing on the charges is pending a judge’s decision on Cooper’s request to disqualify Chassion and board members Hunter Beasley and Mark Babineaux from voting in the hearing due to their alleged bias.
Chassion said he wouldn’t describe himself as “against Cooper” and that he had good reason to vote in support of the charges against Cooper and to hold the hearing.
“I’m for doing the right thing and there’s been multiple wrongdoings in my opinion that other individuals throughout our school system have suffered consequences for and yet still other people are immune and oblivious to constructive criticism,” Chassion said.
He said he thinks some voters may cast their ballots along lines of who is and isn’t in Cooper’s corner.
“It’s a true line in the sand that’s been drawn between supporters of him and non-supporters of him, and this election is bigger than one individual,” Chassion said. “It’s about helping the kids.”
Williams said her focus is on the children — especially those at Faulk.
“I think the School Board needs to make sure that we have the proper policies in place so Faulk has the resources it needs to transform the school,” she said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.