The Ascension Parish School Board race this fall has the potential to bring new faces to a majority of the board, with three open seats in contention and three incumbents facing challengers.
Board members are elected from seven school districts, with four of the districts each represented by two board members, for a total of 11 seats on the board.
This year, five incumbents decided not to seek re-election. But in two of the districts, the new candidates are the only ones on the ballot, essentially handing the office to Scott Duplechein in District 2 and Shawn Sevario in District 5, Seat A.
Of the six incumbents seeking to return to the board, half were unopposed: Taft Kleinpeter, District 5B; Troy Gautreau Sr., District 7A; and Patricia “Pat” Russo, District 7B.
The three incumbents facing challengers are Kerry Diez, District 4A; John Murphy, District 4B; and Lorraine Wimberly, District 6A.
Several of the new candidates for the School Board say they’re motivated to run because their own children are or were in the school system. Some candidates say they are looking to change Ascension schools, saying they want to see better communication between the school district and families and more resources for parents.
Two candidates named their opposition to the Common Core standards as the main reason they threw their hats in the ring.
Following is information on the candidates for the six competitive seats on the board:
DISTRICT 1, west bank, Donaldsonville area
This district is one of the most competitive board races this election, with five candidates vying for the seat.
Dwayne Bailey, a supervisor at the Shell Motiva plant, said he was inspired to run by the struggles of schools in Donaldsonville in recent years. “We noticed chronically, for the last 16 years, the schools weren’t top-level-graded schools. They were in the failing, D and C areas,” he said.
If elected, Bailey pledged to be a mediator between the school system and the people of Donaldsonville, saying he sees a “tremendous disconnect” there.
Percy “Coach” Cargo credited his long record mentoring children through Donaldsonville sports programs with inspiring him to get into the School Board race. With three young children in public schools, Cargo says he wants to see the Donaldsonville schools rise in the rankings, becoming the top ones in the parish.
“I’d like to put a program together where the parents, the teachers and the kids can get together to understand what’s going on at all times, so kids don’t get lost by failing in the system and it’s too late to catch up,” he said.
Robyn Penn Delaney pledged to bring her business acumen to the School Board. “The board is charged with running the educational business of the district,” she said. “With my background in management, I feel like I can bring a lot to the table. My slogan is ‘retired and available to serve.’ ”
Delaney said she would strive to work well with other board members and conduct meetings with students, parents, teachers and others to listen to their concerns.
Dwayne Thomas, who also works at the Motiva plant, said he was inspired to run after his five years teaching in Ascension schools. “I saw some of the struggles the teachers had and the struggles the students had,” said Thomas, who has two children in the school system.
Bullying and its effects are something that motivated him to run, he said. If elected, he wants to establish stronger anti-bullying policies, as well as creating a “safe haven” program for the schools. He emphasized, too, that the system needs to create more vocational training opportunities for children who aren’t college bound.
A lifelong educator, Jevella Williamson retired four years ago after serving as principal at Duplessis Primary. “I see the challenges that young people are facing today. I’d like to lend my support and assistance in developing the whole child, socially, mentally, physically and emotionally,” she said.
Williamson advocates for early childhood development programs that can start as soon as a child is born, extended up through the preschool years. “I would like to see a family literacy center where children and their parents would go to learn skills to enhance reading and writing,” she said. “If children can read, they can do anything.”
DISTRICT 3, from Gonzales area to the Mississippi River
Julie Burnett Blouin said much of what she sees in the Ascension school system is positive, while adding “there’s room for improvement.”
“There’s a segment of the population that is not aware of what’s available,” she said. Blouin, whose grandchildren attend Ascension schools, said she has watched as a special-needs grandchild became “mainstreamed,” attending regular classes, and will graduate from high school with a diploma. “I wanted to be sure people know of the resources out there,” she said.
Nathaniel “Nat” Stephens said he thinks he can be a “coalition builder” to get people to focus on improving collaboration between the school system and the parish.
“Why not (have) the school system and the parish get together a cooperative agreement to expand recreation?” he asked. Stephens, who said several people encouraged him to run, said he also would like to see the system improve adult educational opportunities.
Mark Peters, previously a candidate for District 3, announced his withdrawal from the race on Sept. 16. The Secretary of State’s Office said that of Oct. 9, its office had not yet been notified and that, until that time, Peters’ name would appear on the ballot.
DISTRICT 4, SEAT A, northwestern part of parish
Incumbent Kerry Diez, a Republican, faces two challengers running as registered independents this fall: Vickie Tolliver Auguste, an education consultant, and Robb Marcus, a cable company supervisor.
Auguste, whose youngest child attends school in the district, said she thinks people already in the educational field are the most qualified to be making policy decisions at the school-board level. She would make truancy and anti-bullying policies a priority. She is against charter schools.
“I support public school reform with a focus on developing rigorous standards to ensure students’ academic progress, but I oppose public school reform with a focus on running a school board like a business — a business of shutting down public schools while creating charter schools,” Auguste said.
Diez, who has served three terms, said he is running again because he is proud of the many successes in the system, such as the renovations at schools across the parish.
“I think we’re being really good stewards of the people’s money. We’re going to build the Freshman Academies without raising taxes, without going to the people (for a new tax). We saved enough money,” he said.
If elected, he hopes to push the district toward continuing to improve the state school performance scores and pledges to be a “good steward of the people’s money.”
Marcus, a graduate of St. Amant high, said his two sons are in the parish public schools and he is a volunteer parent coach.
“I’ve always considered office. (Former state Sen.) Joe Sevario is my uncle. I’ve been around it (public office) the majority of my life. I’d like to see what I could do, if I could promote education even better,” Marcus said.
If elected, he would push for the system to maintain or improve their standards. “We have to work together. Right now, I’m hearing the School Board isn’t doing that very well in some areas,” he said.
DISTRICT 4, SEAT B, northwestern part of parish
John Murphy, a Republican third-term incumbent, faces challenger Steve Barrow from his own party this election.
Barrow, the father of five children (including four in elementary school), said he wants to see improvement in the Ascension school system. He praised the schools, saying he wants to see the parish continue to have a “superior education system.”
“I believe in having as much local control of education as possible, with as many decisions as possible made at the school board level, rather than at the state and federal levels,” he said.
Murphy said his experience will be an asset to a board that will have at least five new members. “I love my community, and I love serving on the board,” he said.
If re-elected, Murphy said he wants to move the system forward with no new taxes. “With all the growth we’re expecting — 500 new students again (this year) — I’d like to come up with creative ways of financing our new schools, with the commitment of no new taxes,” he said.
DISTRICT 6, SEAT A, northeastern part of parish
One-term incumbent Lorraine Wimberly, faces one challenger this election for her seat.
The Republican board member and the Libertarian newcomer’s race is defined largely by the Common Core standards that the state has adopted in recent years. Wimberly said teachers need more support in implementing the standards, while Bruno said she is staunchly opposed to them.
Bruno said Common Core pushed her into the race. She is frustrated by homework for her young son and nephew that “they don’t understand.”
“I hope to get more of the board members on board with getting rid of Common Core,” she said. “It requires kindergartners to know how to write their name, recognize all their letters and know their numbers. If Common Core requires kids to know this, expand the pre-K program or don’t require it and teach it in kindergarten.”
Wimberly, who also is a parent, said she considers herself a “voice for the people.”
She agreed that too many parents and children are struggling with the Common Core standards, and it isn’t fair to force parents to help with homework they don’t understand.
“I like rigor and I like the standards to be higher, but I would like to see Common Core adjusted to fit the needs of the students, the teachers and the parents and not be government controlled,” Wimberly said.
She said students should know that high schools offer a Bible history elective course. “I believe when you take God out, something has to replace it and that’s where evil comes in. Our society is beginning to diminish, because they’re taking God out,” she said.
DISTRICT 6, SEAT B, northeastern part of parish
In this open seat, Libertarian Chad Bourgeois is vying for a seat in the northeastern part of the parish against registered independent Louis Lambert.
For Bourgeois, stopping Common Core is his primary goal. He believes that there is too much bureaucracy in the school system that keeps volunteers from being able to contribute.
“The last two years, I have been teaching process technology to chemical plant operators,” he said. “I volunteered to teach that in the Ascension Parish high schools a year and a half ago. It didn’t happen. ... It shows there’s a big bureaucracy that needs to be shrunk.”
Lambert said he was inspired to run by his late grandfather, Gilbert Buratt, who served as a police juror and parish councilman for decades. He wants to give back, as his grandfather did.
Lambert praised the school system, saying he wants to be a support to teachers, principals and administrators.
“With the influx of new people, we have to be able to accommodate them and keep up,” he said. “We need to improve academic excellence and we have to keep our test scores up high. My main focus is getting the resources to the kids and the teachers that they need.”