The fight for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board District 8 has grown uglier as it has entered the home stretch, with incumbent Connie Bernard and newcomer Chris Bailey fighting it out over new schools, party politics and their respective knowledge of the school system.
Their biggest enemy as they approach Dec. 6, however, is not necessarily each other. It’s their tuned-out constituents.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked up to someone’s door, asked, ‘Can I have your support?’ and they say ‘I don’t have my kids in public school,’ ” Bailey recalled.
District 8, which covers much of the southeastern part of the parish south of Interstate 10, is dominated by families who send their children to private schools or schools unconnected to the school system. And while some of the district is within the city limits of Baton Rouge, much of it is unincorporated. That’s an area where some 17,500 residents have signed a petition seeking to form the city, and later a companion school district, of St. George.
Both candidates have expressed sympathy for, but also concerns about, the breakaway movement.
Bernard, 53, who runs a home-based public relations and marketing firm, has identified the lack of public schools in south Baton Rouge, east of Bluebonnet Boulevard, as a key source of discontentment. In recent weeks, she has pressed aggressively for building a new school to serve the area.
“The message is still the same, that we need schools here and we need a plan,” Bernard said.
Bailey, 35, an employee benefits consultant at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said he’s not sure.
“I would like to see an analysis to see the actual demand for a new school,” he said.
Bailey also said he’s doubtful a new school will do much to dampen the discontent.
“The whole St. George movement is rooted in a lot more than that,” Bailey said. “It’s rooted in community confidence.”
Restoring confidence comes up repeatedly and will be his first order of business if elected, Bailey said.
“A lot of people don’t think that there’s any hope,” he said.
Bernard has the power of incumbency, but Bailey has the money. He’s raised almost $50,000 this election compared to almost $20,000 for Bernard. Local business leaders such as Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber gave Bernard financial support in 2010 but are now supporting Bailey.
Bernard won outright in a field of four when she ran for the first time in 2010 but was unable to duplicate that feat on Nov. 4. She ended up with almost 47 percent of the vote, 455 votes short of victory. Bailey pulled 36 percent of the electorate.
Retired social worker Joan Wallyn, who earned 9 percent of the vote, has since endorsed Bailey. The fourth candidate, Charles O’Brien, earned 8 percent of the vote, despite running no evident campaign.
Much of the race has centered around the efforts of Bernard and Bailey, both of them Republicans, to attract politically conservative voters — or dissuade them from voting for their opponent.
Bernard was endorsed by the parish Republican Party’s executive committee, on which she sits; she recused herself from voting.
One member of that committee, former Legislative Auditor and State GOP Treasurer Dan Kyle disagreed. He then sent out an Oct. 1 email, followed by an Election Day robocall, attacking Bernard. For instance, he claims she was once a leader for Planned Parenthood. She responded that she has never worked for, much less served as a leader of, the organization and is demanding the Bailey campaign stop the attacks.
“How are the residents of Baton Rouge and District 8 to trust you when you spread lies about another candidate?” Bernard asked an absent Bailey at a Nov. 20 candidate forum.
The Bailey campaign also has at times tried to suggest that Bernard is too far to the right, even as it highlights Bailey’s conservatism, saying he is “pro-life” and “pro-Second Amendment.” Issues such as abortion and gun control rarely figure into serving on a School Board.
Cleo Fields, former U.S. representative and prominent Democratic politician, endorsed Bailey, a Republican, on a “Cleo Fields Ticket” that went out to some but not all of District 8 voters.
Bernard made sure it went to the rest.
According to several of those at the sparsely attended forum, Bailey would not answer basic questions — for instance, how many schools, both public and private, there are in District 8 — and also admitted he had never volunteered in a Baton Rouge public school. The reactions ranged from mild disappointment to disdain.
Madeline McAndrew, a member of the board for the civic association, said Bailey stood out to her because he couldn’t offer a good reason why he was running and hadn’t seemed to have done his homework.
“I was amazed at the lack of knowledge he had relative to the issues,” McAndrew said. “Someone who is that far into the campaign, I would have thought he would have been much more informed of the situation.”
Bailey described the event as an ambush by Bernard supporters who were looking to embarrass him. Realizing it was a no-win situation, he said, he stopped responding to the questions.
He said his strengths are financial expertise from the business world and a willingness to break with the past. He also said he has been studying up on the schools, reviewing the budget and strategic plan, as well as talking to knowledgeable leaders and educators.
“Before Connie was on the board, she knew nothing about the schools either,” Bailey said. He added, as a clarification, that newcomers typically have limited knowledge about a public office before they actually serve in that office.
Bailey said he didn’t seek or know about Fields’ endorsement. He also said that while Kyle is a supporter, he didn’t pay for or authorize Kyle’s robocall; he has reported it as an in-kind contribution.
“I’m just really trying to ignore the static and do what needs to be done,” he said.