LAFAYETTE — For the first time in eight years, voters in District 6 will have a new Lafayette Parish School Board member representing them.
Justin Centanni, R-Lafayette, and Kathleen Schott Espinoza, No Party-Lafayette, are vying for the seat now held by Greg Awbrey, who opted not to seek re-election.
Centanni offers a finance background he says will benefit the board and district. He’s an assistant vice president in the finance department of Iberia Bank.
“I’m not an educator,” he said. “My talents lie outside of the classroom. I can ensure the fiscal soundness of the board and ensure the educators get the resources they need to do their job. This is where my talents lie. I know how to budget. I know how to plan.”
Espinoza, a geography instructor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said she plans to take a more proactive approach to respond to the needs of the district and its teachers.
“One of my larger issues with the school board now is that we need to take some initiative,” she said. “One of those steps is to develop a charter school policy.”
School districts are required by the state to advertise annually for charter school applications; however, the School Board can harness some control over the type of applications that they receive through policy, Espinoza said.
“If the Department of Education is going to require that, we need to be specific with applications we’re going to solicit,” she said.
For instance, Espinoza said, if the district wants to grow its foreign immersion options, it should solicit applications for foreign immersion charter schools.
“The charter schools today don’t offer anything new to the parish,” she said.
Three of the five charter schools planned for Lafayette Parish opened in August.
Last year, the School Board rejected the schools’ applications, but they were approved by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Espinoza was part of an organized opposition to the charter schools — an effort called Swamp BESE — that led to the creation of a new education advocacy group: Power of Public Education Lafayette. The group opposes for-profit, privatization of public education and advocates for legislation supporting traditional public schools.
Centanni said the charter schools are part of the school system’s landscape now and the focus should be on how to attract those parents who left Lafayette Parish schools back to the system.
“I’d rather compete than complain,” he said.
If elected, he wants to focus on facilities, transportation and the district’s finances. He said he also plans to use the $800 he’d receive monthly as a board member to pay for a monthly district meeting to receive feedback from constituents. He said he will use the money to pay for food, babysitters and tutors to remove any obstacles for families to attend the meetings.
“I can’t think of a better use of that money,” he said. “I want people to call me, talk to me. I’ll be available. I expect to be held accountable for my job just like the superintendent and anyone else in the school system.”
He said he thinks the board’s current way of planning and reviewing its budget is inefficient.
“We have to get our own house in order,” he said. “The budget process is backwards. It should start by asking the principals what they need. Now, it starts with the principals being told what they need to teach their students. ”
Espinoza, whose husband is a teacher and president of the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, said she’d like to see the district consider using different and more equitable evaluation systems to rate school performance and teachers.
The teacher’s organization has been critical of the current evaluation system for teachers that ties students’ performance on pre- and post-tests to the evaluation of a teacher’s job performance. That evaluation is now tied to their pay.
Espinoza also said communication among board members and school system employees could be improved with the creation of committees to deliberate on actions, she said.
“I would like to explore the idea of a committee system to provide a venue for regular communication between board members and system staff,” she said.
She said committees would force board members to do their homework on issues and “at the same time helps to keep the lines of communication open.”
Addressing the district’s facility needs made both candidates’ list of priorities, and they agreed that the board won’t find support for a new tax to fund facility improvements until its members rebuild trust in the community.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.