At least two new faces will be elected to the Zachary School Board on Nov. 4, but the nine-member board will also see at least four returning members next year. Gaynell Young, Hubie Owen, Beth Kimmell and David Dayton of districts 1, 5, 7 and 9, respectively, were returned to office unopposed when the qualifying period ended in August.
There are four new candidates running for the District 2 and District 6 seats vacated by Scott Swilley and Jannie Rogers, who opted not to run again. Three incumbents also picked up challengers this election season.
The five contested races have drawn teachers, school administrators, business people and others who want to oversee Louisiana’s No. 1-performing school district. Incumbents running for re-election say they want to help Zachary’s seven schools continue to live up to their solid reputations.
Many candidates, however, contend that won’t be possible if the board doesn’t get more funding and a better handle on state education policies.
Gwen Fuselier, who was a practicing veterinarian in Zachary for 11 years, said she is running because her four children have “reaped the benefits” of Zachary schools.
“There’s a sense of pride that the staff at the schools have,” she said.
Fuselier said the board must be more fiscally responsible because the state is raising academic requirements while decreasing education funding.
“It will be a challenge,” she said. “How do we keep what parents are used to from Zachary schools?”
Fuselier, 43, helps manage a family-owned business, Delta Financial Services. Two of her children currently attend Zachary High School.
Fuselier’s opponent, Brandy Westmoreland, could not be reached for comment.
Two-term incumbent Sharon Samuel said she is running again because “five seats are up right now, so we need experience on the board.”
There is not enough money coming in to the district to adequately support teachers, Samuel said.
“We need to advocate to our legislators that we don’t like taxes either, but we need to support our kids’ schools and keep our values and beliefs we have in Zachary,” Samuel said.
Samuel, 53, was a substitute teacher in Zachary schools and worked as a math and computer lab paraprofessional from 2005 to 2006. She is now a realtor. Her son is a senior at Zachary High.
Samuel’s opponent Marty Hughes could not be reached for comment.
Donna Grice, who is taking on one-term incumbent Kenneth Mackie, said she’s running partly because she just retired from a 23-year career in education.
“I love Zachary and want to put that experience to use,” Grice said. “With all of the changes coming down from (the) state, it’s important that someone on the board has experience in schools.”
The process of implementing Common Core, for example, needs guidance from an educator, she said.
Grice, 45, was a teacher for 10 years in East Baton Rouge Parish schools. She was a counselor at Kenilworth Middle for two years, then became a counselor and dean of students at Zachary High. Her two sons attend Zachary schools.
Mackie, elected to the board in 2010, said his biggest concern is funding. The state formula that divides school funding among the school systems is due for an increase, Mackie said.
“We have increasing costs — retirement benefits, teachers benefits, technology costs,” he said.
Gifted, talented and arts programs may face cuts as a result, he said.
Mackie, 54, is the director of the federally funded Upward Bound program at Southern University, where he is also working on a master’s degree in public administration.
In one of the two open fields for the Zachary board, three candidates are vying for the seat representing people living in the central part of the city: LSU instructor Elecia “Lisa” Lathon, attorney Heidi Vessel and Lee Russell, who runs a construction firm.
Lathon said she wants to help people understand education and the challenges that school districts face.
“When they see our school district is functioning as No. 1 in the state all these years … sometimes they miss all the hard work that goes behind that and the funding,” she said.
Lathon, who teaches education courses at LSU, said high school graduates need to be able to compete with children from around the world. That means teachers must have professional development opportunities to learn new strategies that keep their students on top, she said.
Lathon, 44, was previously an I CARE specialist in East Baton Rouge Parish schools.
Russell, a 38-year-old Zachary High graduate, said he’s running to ensure all children — including his four children — in the district have the best schools possible. He said the school district faces two challenges: a growing population and not enough money to pay for schools.
The school board must bring in more money, Russell said, even if it means introducing a local sales tax.
“If we’re going to stay the No. 1 schools in the state, they have to be paid for some way,” Russell said. “They don’t just come by for free.”
Vessel, a family and personal injury lawyer, said decreasing state funding has made it harder to stay both academically viable and fiscally responsible.
“The schools are turning out very proficient students, but we still have to be concerned with the business of the school system,” she said.
Vessel said there are many struggling school systems nearby, such as the Baker system, so it is important to keep Zachary on the cutting edge.
Vessel, 45, and her husband have two children who attend Zachary Early Learning Center and Northwestern Elementary.
Dawn Avants, who was appointed to the board 10 months ago to fill an unexpired term, is facing off against Ann Watkins, who had a long career in early childhood education.
Avants said she’s passionate about helping families as Zachary grows and schools face new challenges.
The board has been considering a half-cent sales tax to help support schools. The district isn’t in trouble, Avants insisted — “it’s about preparing for the future.”
One of Zachary’s strengths is the community’s ability to pull together, Avants said, which helps schools succeed.
“Zachary’s a small community,” she said. “We’re a family. Being on the board and every kid that’s in the schools is my family.”
Avants, 41, manages a cemetery with her husband. Their three children attend Zachary schools.
Watkins, 65, said communication between parents, schools and the community “is a must” to maintain the district’s good rating.
Watkins opened an early learning center in 1986. After it closed, she directed several others in the area. She is still a state-licensed day care director.
Watkins’ grandchildren attend Zachary schools and are the sixth generation of her family to live in Zachary.
“That’s my vested interest right there,” she said. “Being the No. 1 school district has positioned Zachary for growth … but I feel like we must not sacrifice quality.”