Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on the Lafayette Parish School Board district candidates.
LAFAYETTE — Voters in the District 8 Lafayette Parish School Board race will decide between an incumbent who says he wants to continue his role as an advocate for teachers and students, and a newcomer who says he’s ready to work toward restoring the public’s trust in the School Board.
Incumbent Hunter Beasley, no party, and Erick Knezek, a Republican, are on the ballot as the District 8 candidates in the Nov. 4 election.
Beasley was first elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010. He said he wants another term on the board to continue working to improve the school system.
“I think we can continue to make progress and make this school system better,” he said. “I have a true passion to help children and help teachers.”
Beasley teaches special education-focused classes to aspiring teachers in the undergraduate and graduate level at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He describes himself as an advocate for teachers.
If re-elected, Beasley said, his priorities are improving teacher morale, closing the achievement gaps among students from different income groups and stabilizing the district’s spending.
Beasley said he’s concerned about the financial impact of unfunded state mandates and new charter schools that opened in the district. State funding and local tax dollars follow Lafayette Parish students who enroll in charter schools.
Balancing resources to ensure schools’ needs are met also is needed, Beasley said.
“I think we definitely have to focus on trying to improve those low-performing schools, but we can’t forget those other schools. We have to provide support to help them maintain their high performance,” Beasley said.
Knezek is co-founder and managing partner of Truston Technologies, a specialty marine construction company that contracts with the U.S. Navy. While his business interests lie mostly outside of Louisiana, Knezek said he chooses to make his home in Lafayette, and his desire to improve it led him to enter the School Board race.
“I live in Lafayette because it’s where I grew up. This is my community, and the school system is in dire straits,” he said. “You’ve got major facility problems, major funding problems. We have a School Board that can’t seem to function as a professional group focused on children.”
He said that if elected, he’d work toward helping bridge trust between the community and the school system.
“I think we need to stop the bickering between the board and the superintendent and really prove to the community that they can trust us again with their tax dollars,” Knezek said.
He said his other goals include promoting the school system and ensuring the School Board focuses on its job — policy-making and governance.
“We can do that by empowering the superintendent to be the chief executive of the school system,” Knezek said.
The division of roles of the School Board and Superintendent Pat Cooper over personnel matters and budgetary decisions has led to some tension-filled board meetings in the past year.
The board elected Beasley as board president in January. He’s led the board through its most volatile year, one that saw a record $23.5 million shortfall in the general fund and the launching of an investigation of Cooper.
The board voted Thursday to accept charges against Cooper. A hearing will be held sometime next month to determine if Cooper should be disciplined or fired. At issue is interpretation of Act 1, a state law that created several changes in education policy, including transferring personnel decisions from school boards to the superintendent.
Beasley said he hasn’t overstepped his role as a board member but questioned the effectiveness of Act 1.
“I’ve never micromanaged the superintendent,” Beasley said. “ I never tried to. It’s not my position. If certain powers have gone to the superintendent, that’s the way it is.”
But Beasley said any government body needs checks and balances, which he believes have been eroded by Act 1.
Beasley said he’s supported some key initiatives in the district’s turnaround plan, such as investment in early childhood programs. The plan was developed by task force groups and includes hundreds of recommendations to improve the district’s performance.
Beasley said ideas in the book are “good from a research-based perspective,” but the plan lacks funding to implement the recommendations.
Knezek said he supports the turnaround plan, as well as funding to ensure the plan is implemented effectively, and those are issues he plans to address if elected to the board.
He said improving the school system will help attract more families to Lafayette, especially as new businesses expand or move into south Louisiana.
“I want to become the shining light of public education between Houston and New Orleans. We are currently seeing this massive economic boom in Louisiana between the Sabine River and the Mississippi River due to LNG (liquefied natural gas) export market and other businesses moving in,” he said. “I want Lafayette to be the place where people make the decision to move here and raise a family.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.