LAFAYETTE — Another field of Lafayette Parish School Board candidates shared on Wednesday their opinions on issues they may encounter if elected during the second night of candidate forums.
The forum, organized by the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council, featured the following candidates: District 4: Erica Williams; District 5: Kermit Bouillion, the incumbent; and District 6: Justin Centanni and Kathleen Espinoza.
Williams is challenging the incumbent, Tehmi Chassion, who declined to participate in the forum. Bouillion is on the ballot with Britt Latiolais, who couldn’t attend due to a work commitment.
The forums began with candidates from the first three districts and will conclude Thursday with candidates from Districts 7, 8 and 9.
For the past 20 months, the majority of School Board members and Superintendent Pat Cooper have been at odds over personnel and budgetary issues.
Candidates responded to questions related to how they view the roles and responsibilities of the School Board versus the role of the superintendent and how they’d rate Cooper’s performance.
Bouillion said the board has oversight of three areas: policy, the budget and the superintendent. Bouillion is one of three board members who supports Cooper.
A majority of the board has accepted charges against Cooper, alleging that some of his management decisions were made in violation of state law, board policies and his own contract. Cooper will have a chance to defend himself against the charges in a hearing sometime next month.
Bouillion said he’s “proud” of Cooper and thinks the board should give him more time to produce results.
“I’m not ready to make a decision on Pat Cooper after two years. He has a contract for four years,” Bouillion said.
Espinoza said the board is the liaison between the public and the central office. To be effective in that role, board members need to be prepared and understand system operations.
“They have to do their homework,” she said.
She said she also sees a need for a “clear protocol” for board members to take constituents’ concerns to management to ensure that the community’s needs are being met.
Centanni said the law clearly sets out the roles of the board.
“It’s not a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of state law,” he said.
He questioned the actions of some current board members who challenged some of the school district’s staff’s expertise at a recent meeting. He said there was a 30-minute conversation among board members over when a substitute custodian could be called. That discussion was followed by a 20-minute conversation among some board members who wanted to change the number of counselors at schools.
“This isn’t their job,” he said. “Their job is to set policy and hire a superintendent.”
Williams said she believes that if the school system focused on the schools in her district, it would see a result in the school system’s performance. She said investment in early childhood education programs and early intervention for struggling students would help raise student achievement at the schools in her district, which are among the district’s lowest-performing schools.
Williams bristled at a question asking whether the candidates believed that all children can learn at grade level regardless of their background.
“I came from a home of a single mother on welfare and food stamps,” she said. “I was held back in the first grade because I had a teacher who believed that I could not learn.”
She said years later one of her teachers saw and nurtured her potential. Williams said she’s currently working on completing a doctoral degree.
“We have students sitting in D schools and F schools that can learn at and above grade level. I just cringe when I hear this question because I know the potential,” Williams said. “Yes, all students in all seats of Lafayette Parish have the ability to learn at or above grade level.”
Espinoza said the achievement gap is a poverty gap and she views the turnaround plan as a way to help close the disparity.
“The vision of the turnaround plan is that it extends the mission of the parish,” she said. “It’s about providing the essential needs that children are not getting in the community.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.