Seven of the 12 seats on the East Feliciana Parish School Board will be contested on Nov. 4, with the majority of the candidates identifying funding as a key issue driving this election.
Five School Board incumbents were elected without opposition: Democrats Broderick Brooks Sr. in District 2-2, Mitchell Harrell in District 3-1 and Richard W. Terrell in District 6-2, as well as Elizabeth Dawson in District 3-2 and Benjamin Cupit in District 4, neither of whom is affiliated with a political party.
Here’s a look at the seven contested School Board seats:
Democrat Deaber Allen-Thomas and Republican J. Curtis Jelks are vying for the seat vacated by incumbent Rufus “Coach” Nesbitt, who does not live in the district since it was redrawn.
A political newcomer, Allen-Thomas said that if elected, she intends to work with the superintendent and other board members to better understand what’s happening inside classrooms.
“They’re telling teachers what to do when they don’t know what’s going on in classrooms,” she said of School Board members. “You have to understand the student struggles and prepare them mentally, physically and emotionally.”
Jelks previously served for eight years as president of the School Board before deciding not to run in the last election.
“I’m pro-business, and I believe we should be working with existing business and attracting new businesses to fund the school system,” Jelks said. He said he believes delinquent taxes should be forgiven.
He said the 12-member board should be shrunk and he doesn’t want to see the federal government determining what happens in the local school system. He’s against raising taxes.
Democrat Melvin L. Hollins is the incumbent for the seat, facing Rufus “Coach” Nesbitt, also a Democrat, who was forced into a different district when the lines were redrawn.
Hollins said his primary focus has been “the restoration of academic and financial integrity to the school district.”
He said he is running again to nurture academic growth, increase community involvement, promote post-secondary education, advocate for career readiness programs and allocate funds to enhance technology and facilities. During his first term on the board, Hollins served as chairman of the superintendent search committee.
Nesbitt is completing his first term on the board, representing District 1, and said he has one main objective: “I’m on this to bring the community closer together.”
“We’re located between two of the greatest school systems, West Feliciana and Zachary, and I’d like for us to see what is working there and copy it here. But we have to come together and unite,” Nesbitt said.
He wants to see more funding provided in order to retain certified teachers.
Incumbent Rhonda Matthews, in her first term, faces a challenge from fellow Democrat Dianne Jackson-Wilson.
Matthews said she has learned about the many challenges the school system faces. She said finding adequate funding is important, especially for attracting qualified certified teachers, and that she would support a new tax to do so.
“The funding is such an issue that our schools are competing against each other for limited resources,” she said.
Still, Matthews said, the board has accomplished quite a bit during her tenure, such as improving the overall grades for student academic growth.
Jackson-Wilson said she wants to increase the involvement of parents in their children’s education.
“They (parents) are our best tool to work with,” she said. “They can motivate the kids to go to school every day, and when you reach the parents, you have control of the kids.”
Jackson-Wilson would like to increase vocational training for students who won’t likely go to college.
Incumbent Olivia Harris, a Democrat, says she firmly stands by the motto of “Representing students, teachers and citizens for education.” She is opposed by Derald Spears Sr., who says the school system needs improvement.
Harris is completing her first term and argues the board has turned around its finances. “We restored academic and financial integrity in the school district.”
She said the board members work well together and she wants to continue to be a part of the positive direction.
Spears, who is not affiliated with a party, said he is running because he’s seen how the school system has been degraded and he wants to give back to the students.
Spears, who grew up in East Feliciana Parish and is the son of a schoolteacher, said his main focus is on School Board transparency and accountability, and he wants the superintendent to be accountable to the board.
“The superintendent works for the School Board, and they work for the people,” he said.
Both incumbent Debra Spurlock Haynes, finishing her first term, and challenger Joyce A. Kent are Democrats. Haynes said that since she’s been on the board, the school district has improved, while Kent said the system needs to grow.
“I’ve seen a lot of academic growth and the morale of the community has seemed to change there as well,” Haynes said.
Major challenges remain, she said. “We have financial concerns that need to be addressed and we need to focus on keeping certified teachers” Haynes said. “They can make more money elsewhere.”
Kent agreed that the parish needs to keep certified teachers. “We have experienced teachers in the parish, but they’re leaving for better pay,” she said.
She said the entire community needs to come together and pass a tax to better fund the schools.
Incumbent Michael Ray Bradford, the School Board president, is opposed by two candidates: Democrat Janice Betrece and Republican Chris Rouchon.
Bradford, who is in his fourth term, said he’s satisfied with the board’s overall progress and the performance of Superintendent Lewis Henderson. He believes additional vocational courses are needed.
“I would love to have more money, but we have to be good stewards for what we have,” Bradford said.
Rouchon said he is seeking to unseat Bradford because he is unhappy with the current School Board.
Rouchon said the school system should revert to a four-day school week, which was scrapped last year, saying it saved money. He would like to investigate privatizing the bus system. He does not support borrowing money through bond issues to fund the school system.
“These are your tax dollars they’re screwing with,” Rouchon said.
Repeated attempts to contact Betrece were unsuccessful.
Incumbent Paul Kent and his challenger Tony Rouchon both list their party affiliation as “other.”
Kent is completing his first term, and says he’s pleased with the way the board and administration have worked together “to set the school system on its current path toward financial responsibility and academic excellence.”
Rouchon, the brother of Chris Rouchon, said he’s running because taxpayers are “customers buying a product, and they have the right to a safe and clean school environment because that’s the product they are paying for.”
Consolidating the school system has brought the parish together, Rouchon said, and has made a positive difference because the students are more competitive academically.
“We still need to improve the system financially and educator-wise,” he said, emphasizing the need to bring in quality teachers.