The four Iberville Parish School Board members left with their names on the Dec. 6 runoff ballot are campaigning to retain their seats on a board facing a major facelift after this year when the number of members changes from 15 to nine.
Two incumbents, Darlene Ourso and Brian Willis, are in a heated race over the board’s newly created at-large seat, while the two other incumbents are trying to defeat novice opponents in their respective district races.
In East Iberville, the two women that pulled ahead of the pack in the Nov. 4 primary are each hoping to win in the Dec. 6 runoff.
No matter who wins, the election will result in a revamped School Board because the races are based on a new redistricting plan the board adopted in January, which reduced the 15-member body to nine members.
The new, smaller board, which will include eight members representing single-member districts and one person representing an at-large district, was forced by a 2010 law sponsored by state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete.
Five of the nine-member seats were filled following the Nov. 4 primaries.
Incumbents Melvin Lodge and Yolanda Laws retained their places on the board in unopposed races in Districts B and F, respectively.
Pauline “Polly” Higdon and Glyna Kelley beat their opponents in races for the District E and District D seats, respectively, on Nov. 4 by capturing approximately 66 percent of the votes each in their races, according to official election results.
Local businessman Chris Daigle will be one of the new faces on the board, representing District G. Daigle captured 51 percent of the votes in the Nov. 4 race, edging out two incumbents Freddie “Sam” Molden III and John Morris III.
Board members Donald Patterson, Michael Barbee, Tom Delahaye and Nancy Broussard did not seek re-election.
Dorothy Sansoni, another incumbent, was nudged out of the race for the at-large seat by fellow incumbent Democrats Ourso and Willis, who garnered 30 percent and 23 percent of the votes, respectively, Nov. 4.
Willis, 54, is presenting himself as the candidate willing to unite the board as its at-large representative, and with the school system’s continued growth, he said he plans to help find a way for the district to provide more career-focused and technology-driven opportunities to all of its students.
“The person that wins this seat has to be a leader,” he said. “We have to forget about just our districts and be one and work together as a team — something that never happened before because there has been too many board members.”
Willis, who also serves as the parish’s Solid Waste director, touted the school system’s dual enrollment programs and industrial-based certification opportunities as instruments that have given Iberville students better post high school success stories.
He now wants to use his voice to expand those programs into more schools.
Ourso, however, has a different view on what the new at-large seat will mean for the School Board. The 55-year-old Ascension Parish teacher said she is convinced the school system is doing too much wasteful spending and needs to make some much-needed cuts, primarily in the Central Office.
“With the new make-up of the board, there are going to be new personalities. I don’t know if one person can sit there and say he can unite the board,” Ourso said. “This will be new challenges for us. We have to just all come together and be about the children and what’s best for them.”
Doing what’s best for children means spending more of the school district’s $90 million annual budget on students instead of new facilities or adding to the administrative staff, she said.
“I think we’ve become top-heavy in administration,” she said. “I’m all about us managing our resources better. We have a $90 million budget and only 4,735 students. We should be producing better students than we are.”
The fight to reopen North Iberville High School has become the focus of the District C race.
Incumbent Pam George, who is seeking her second term on the School Board, said she recognizes the community’s desire to see the campus reopened but has enough experience to know it will take a lot more than talk to make it happen.
George, a Democrat, had 10 percent more votes than Jewell, also a Democrat, according to the Nov. 4 election results.
George, 50, a Democrat who has served as the municipal clerk for the Village of Gross Tete for the last decade, received 48 percent of the votes over Jewell, also a Democrat, who captured 34 percent of the vote, sending the two to the runoff over their two opponents in the race, according to Nov. 4 election results.
“My opponent is mainly running off a platform to bring back North Iberville High — and I’m not closed to that. I would just like to see it come back if the numbers are possible,” George said. “I have enough board knowledge to know that one person can’t do everything, so I refuse to make promises I can’t keep.”
Karen “Kay” Jewell, George’s opponent, a self-employed businesswoman and mother of three boys who attend school in the parish, has pledged to see that the school is reopened after being shutdown by Superintendent Ed Cancienne in 2009 due to the school’s declining enrollment and low performance.
Since its closing, seventh to 12th grade students are bused across the parish to attend Plaquemine High, which Jewell, 48, considers a burden on kids.
“My kids are in the public school system. I know what it’s like for sixth graders to have to ride a bus for more than an hour,” Jewell said.
Jewell, who also serves as a commissioner on the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, added, “I know with my business and political experience I can forge a relationship with board members.”
In the District H race, eight-year School Board incumbent Michael Hebert, a Democrat, is facing Republican Carrie Thistlethwaite Booksh.
Booksh, who is making her first run for a seat on the School Board, has focused her campaign on ensuring every child in Iberville Parish receives a quality education.
Hebert, 35, received 39 percent of the votes over Booksh’s 35 percent in the Nov. 4 election.
Hebert hopes to spend a third term on the board and plans on not getting overly involved in the day-to-day operations of the school system, something he said he believes many of his fellow board members do too often.
“I’d just like everyone to follow the change of command,” he said. “If we have a problem, we just need to talk about it. I’m never one of the ones yelling at board meetings. I try not to get caught up in all that.”
Booksh, a mother with three children enrolled in parish schools, feels it’s time for new blood on the board. As an educator herself — she owns the Little Learners Play School in Plaquemine — Booksh said she believes she can make better choices on the board because she’s personally invested in the school system.
“If we allow parents to have a voice and to take ownership in the school system, I think we can continue our progress toward being the best system we can be,” she said.
The final School Board runoff lies in District A, where two Republicans are making their first attempts to get on the School Board. Tressy Gleason and Theresa White Roy are locked in a tight race for the final seat on the board.
Gleason is a 46-year-old life coach and paralegal, and Roy, 54, owns St. Gabriel Grocery and Deli in St. Gabriel.
On Nov. 4, Roy earned 35 percent of the votes to Gleason’s 34 percent, according to election results.
Both women hope to bridge the divide between East Iberville and the rest of the school system, which they say is separated by more than just the Mississippi River.
“We don’t have enough stuff on this side of the river to accommodate these kids,” Roy said. “I see people come into my store daily, complaining about the school system.”
Roy wants to push the school system to get more vocational studies and/or trade school opportunities on the eastern side of the parish to increase the chances of those students securing jobs at one of the several industrial plants located in the St. Gabriel area.
Gleason said she wants to focus her efforts on implementing more college readiness programs for East Iberville students and attracting more “highly qualified” teachers to the school system.
“If we can hone in on education, we can win the battles on poverty, crime … and really help this community grow,” Gleason said. “There is such greatness happening in the parish, and I want to be apart of making it greater.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter @tjonesreporter.