LAFAYETTE — Voters in the Scott area will decide in the Dec. 6 runoff election whether a former coach or a college student adviser will fill the District 1 seat on the Lafayette Parish School Board.
Mary Morrison, an adviser and instructor at South Louisiana Community College, was the top vote-getter in the Nov. 4 election with 2,485 votes, or nearly 45 percent of the vote, while “Coach Don” Gagnard received 2,038 votes, or 36 percent of the vote, sending the two candidates to the runoff.
A third challenger, Redell “Mama” Comeaux Miller, received 1,053 or nearly 19 percent of the vote.
The winner of the runoff will replace board member Mark Babineaux, who opted not to seek re-election in order to run for judge. Babineaux faces Michelle Meaux Breaux in a runoff for the judge’s position in Division E.
School district operations have been in flux since the general election. The board fired Superintendent Pat Cooper on Nov. 6 and appointed Burnell LeJeune, director of the district’s career and technical education and Schools of Choice programs, to the post.
The board also voted to direct the administration to do what Cooper would not do — implement the 2014-15 budget, which could lead to 100 employees losing their jobs mid-school year.
Gagnard is a retired educator, who began his career in Avoyelles Parish and taught for more than 20 years in Lafayette Parish schools. He taught biology and also coached wrestling, and later he coached middle school basketball. He now works as a safety manager for a local oilfield inspection services company.
Gagnard said he has received unwelcome attention since The Ind, a local publication, brought to the public’s attention some derogatory comments he posted on Facebook about President Barack Obama, African-Americans and gay people. The postings came to the public’s attention after the Nov. 4 election.
Gagnard has since deleted his profile on the social media site, but some of the comments can still be found online.
In one post, he rants about people who receive food stamps, calling them “lazy,” and then writes, “If you want to call me racist or whatever else is fine. That card is also getting old. I am not only racist but I hate faggots, bums, illegal aliens, veterans mistreatment and most of all: OUR HITLER PRESIDENT WHICH IS TRYING TO RUIN THIS COUNTRY PURPOSEFULLY.”
Gagnard confirmed he wrote the post but said he was “being sarcastic.”
Since the postings were made public, people have been coming up to him and criticizing him for making the comment, he said.
“I am not like that,” he said he tells his critics.
He has appeared on KATC-TV in an attempt to defend himself.
Gagnard claimed that another Facebook profile was fraudulently created in his name in mid-November, and he filed a complaint with the Scott Police Department over the fraudulent profile.
Gagnard said he grew up poor in Avoyelles Parish and his family received food stamps, so he understands poverty. He said he’s not a racist and on his own time, he’s taught black students how to drive and how to catch crawfish.
He also said he has friends who are gay, including “gay ladies” and one in particular who “cooks the best rice and gravy you can about imagine.”
He said the Facebook posts are all about politics and have distracted voters from the real issues. He said someone asked him if he has thought about stepping out of the race, but he refused.
“I’ve never been an advocate of giving up,” Gagnard said. “I hope people who know me over the past 30 years would support me. I’m an ethical man. I am qualified. I know how to put people together.”
Morrison said as a board member, she’ll work to ensure that students and teachers have the resources they need.
“I’m going to focus on the need for staffing to make sure we’re not taking away anything that will impact student success,” she said. “I’ll be making sure our teachers have what they need in the classroom and what they need to help students succeed.”
When reviewing the school system’s budgetary needs, Morrison said the board needs to prioritize expenses while focusing on students in the classroom.
Last week, the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, the parish’s largest teachers organization, endorsed Morrison in the runoff election, citing her professionalism and qualifications.
“Mrs. Morrison has spent her campaign addressing the most pressing issues related to improving our schools, seeking support for early childhood education and addressing our school facility needs,” Jonathan Cole, LPAE elections chairman, said in a news release.
Morrison is working on completing her master’s degree in education. She ran for the District 1 seat in 2006 and was defeated by Russel Meyer, who stepped down from the seat and was replaced by Babineaux, who has held the position since then.
Morrison has represented District 1 before — in 2011 on the Lafayette City-Parish Council to serve out the final year of the term of her husband, Purvis Morrison, after he was elected mayor of Scott. In that role, Morrison said, she gained valuable experience in working with constituents and budgets.
If elected, Gagnard said some of his priorities include empowering teachers in the classroom by focusing on discipline. He said he’d also like to see schools seek alternative fundraising opportunities. He said he’d work with other board members to implement decisions approved by the majority — even when his vote stands in the minority.
“(We) must say we back the majority’s decision and work with each other,” Gagnard said.
He also said he would approach school principals to discuss with them the issues on their campuses.
“I think there’s too much control at the top, and teachers are not represented. We’ve got to take the politics out of it,” he said.
He said he would also call districtwide meetings to ensure all voices are heard in the district.
“I’ll support what they want,” Gagnard said. “I would never try to make a decision on my own without input from my district.”
Morrison committed early in her campaign to holding town hall meetings if she is elected. She said she views the meetings as a way to receive feedback from parents, community members and school system employees about needs in the district and also involve them in what’s going on in the district.
“We need to feel that our school system is for everyone in the community,” Morrison said. “Every person in this community has a stake in the school system and should be heard. I’m excited about making changes in our school system and moving our system forward together with the community.”
She said the community needs a representative who is diverse and touted her experience in education and government.
The School Board needs to tackle overcrowded schools and support early childhood education and other initiatives that can help close the achievement gap, Morrison said.
The new board will take office at the School Board’s Jan. 7 meeting, which kicks off a year that will include some major issues such as a search for a new superintendent, an expected budget deficit and how to address aging, overcrowded facilities.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.