Editor’s note: This article concludes a series on the Lafayette Parish School Board district races.
LAFAYETTE —Voters in District 1 will have new representation on the Lafayette Parish School Board for the first time in seven years as three candidates vie to fill a seat that’s coming open.
All three candidates in the race have ties to education.
- Don Gagnard, no party-Scott, is a former Lafayette Parish School System teacher with 28 years of experience. Gagnard began his teaching career at Bunkie High School but spent the majority of his career in Lafayette Parish schools.
- Redell Comeaux Miller, known as “Mama,” promotes the area’s cultural heritage through her own family-owned businesses and, as a tourism coordinator at Acadian Village, works with school students and teachers who visit the cultural park.
- Mary Morrison is an adviser and instructor at South Louisiana Community College.
The three are vying to replace Mark Babineaux on the board. He opted not to seek re-election to the District 1 seat to instead run for district judge.
Morrison ran for the School Board eight years ago and was defeated by Russel Meyer, who later stepped down in 2007 because he moved out of state. Babineaux, who initially was appointed to fill Meyer’s seat, later was elected to the position.
Morrison, who is completing her master’s degree in education, said she’s had her eye on filling the board seat since that defeat in 2006 and worked to prepare for it by volunteering at community schools.
Morrison represented District 1 on the Lafayette City-Parish Council in 2011 as she completed the final year on the council of her husband, Purvis, following his election as mayor of Scott. Morrison said she gained experience with budgets and other issues in the district in that role.
“Eight years ago, I was a newbie. Today, I’m ready,” Morrison said.
Miller earned the nickname “Mama” while a cook at Vermilionville’s Cuisine du Maman (“Mama’s Kitchen”). She said groups would jokingly ask, “Who’s mama?” and the nickname stuck for about the past 20 years.
She said she decided to run because people in the community asked her to consider it.
“They told me with my past in working with children and because I spend many hours — I do lots of community and volunteer work with heritage and history — with children that they wanted me to run for this seat,” Miller said.
Miller said she’s been making the rounds in the community to gather input on district priorities and needs but declined to share the priorities she’s identified or how, as a board member, she’d work to address specific needs.
“There’s so much to work on, bebe,” she said. “The first thing you have to do is listen to learn. That’s what I’ve been doing now.”
Asked what she views as priorities she’d address as a board member, Miller replied: “What everyone has been hearing.”
When asked to be more specific, Miller replied: “Mama doesn’t like negativity. Whoever plans to get in that seat, the team will have a lot of work to do.”
Miller said she has not fully reviewed the district’s turnaround plan and that she’s “still in the learning process right now.”
She added that, “until I can get in there and get deep into it, I can’t make any kind of decision” on whether she supports the turnaround plan.
Miller said the district’s most pressing needs are “support of teachers” and to build unity in the district.
“A vision in the future that I’d like to see is all of us become a family again — parents, teachers, bus drivers, School Board members. We all need to pull and draw arms and work together,” Miller said.
Gagnard said unity on the board should be a priority for those who take seats come January. Even if the board can’t reach unanimous decisions, opposing board members should resolve to move forward with the majority’s decision, he said.
“These cats are split every time,” Gagnard said of the current board.
He said he’d focus on policies that help restore discipline in the classroom to enable teachers to spend more time on instruction if he’s elected to serve on the board.
“We need to restore some discipline in the classroom and restore some respect for these teachers,” Gagnard said. “We need more input from teachers, more input from parents.”
He said he supports the district’s turnaround plan because it outlines ways to improve the district. However, he said he questions certain aspects of the plan, such as funding programs for children who aren’t yet old enough to be in public school.
This school year, the school system began offering child care on Northside High’s campus to teen parents who are part of a parenting education program.
“It’s a goal,” he said of the turnaround plan. “We all need to agree with the plan. If we voted on it, whatever the board didn’t like, by loyalty, back this plan.”
Gagnard, a former wrestling coach, said he views the board’s role as that of “assistants” to the “head coach,” who is the superintendent.
“The School Board should be there to help, not to control,” he said.
He said that, as a board member, he would also defer to the expertise of others.
“How many people on the board have a master’s degree in education?” Gagnard asked. “How do they know what it takes? We need to back our teachers. We need to back our principals. We need to back our superintendents. There are times when we may not be able to if it has an adverse effect on our children or on our community.”
Morrison said her priorities are to address the district’s achievement gap by strengthening early childhood programs and to restore professionalism among board members.
Morrison said she supports the district’s turnaround plan and that she’ll work on “creative ways to move (it) forward given the budget crunch.”
The board should also work toward ensuring that teachers have the resources they need to academically prepare students, Morrison said.
If elected, she said, she plans to hold town hall meetings to receive input on issues.
“Education needs everyone — teachers, School Board members, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, students and parents. I’d love to see more community input where the community would feel this is our school. This is our school system,” Morrison said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.