Seven Baton Rouge area contenders for Louisiana’s top school board clashed Thursday night over how to improve public schools during a forum two days before the primary election.
The session included some pointed exchanges between District 6 incumbent Chas Roemer and Donald Songy, one of his challengers.
The issues were debated in one of the final gatherings before voters cast ballots Saturday on seven races for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Two of the contests are in the Baton Rouge area.
Any runoffs needed will be held on Nov. 19.
The forum was sponsored by the state branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Baton Rouge branch of the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
The gathering took place at Star Hill Baptist Church with about 50 people in the audience.
BESE sets policies for an estimated 668,000 public school students statewide.
The District 6 race includes Roemer, who is seeking a second term; Songy, who is the former Ascension Parish school system superintendent; and recently retired teacher Elizabeth Meyers, of Denham Springs.
Roemer and Songy offered different views on how public schools should cope with declining state revenue.
Roemer said that, despite constant cries for more money, about $9 billion per year is already spent on public education from federal, state and local sources, and about $13,000 per student.
“The fact of the matter is we have some programs that are ineffective but we don’t do anything about it,” he said.
Songy disputed Roemer’s $13,000 figure and said that, when he was Ascension Parish superintendent, less than $10,000 was spent on students.
“If Mr. Roemer can get us $13,000, I will vote for him myself,” said Songy, who pointedly referred to Roemer as a “noneducator.”
Songy also said that, despite periodic complaints about wasteful spending in education budgets, school patrons invited to scrutinize spending usually found little to criticize.
“We do run a tight ship,” he said. “Most districts run a tight ship.”
Meyers said the state needs to focus on early childhood education and to provide teachers with more professional development.
The District 8 race includes Domoine Rutledge, of Baton Rouge, general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system; Carolyn Hill, a certified social worker; Russell Armstrong, a district support coordinator for the state Department of Education; and Jim Guillory, of Plaucheville, a retired businessman and former member of the Avoyelles Parish school board.
The post is now held by Linda Johnson, of Plaquemine. Johnson is not seeking re-election.
Rutledge criticized the state’s new policy of issuing letter grades to Louisiana’s roughly 1,300 public schools.
“This scarlet letter approach is really unfortunate,” he said.
Hill said she wants parents to see how schools are performing but the state should provide financial aid for “D” and “F” schools.
Armstrong said grades give parents a better idea of school performance but that the new system is not without pitfalls.
Guillory criticized the way a wide range of public schools, from those with special admission standards to those for troubled students, are graded the same way.
Songy stressed his 38 years as an educator, including time as a classroom teacher, principal and administrator.
Roemer said he wants an improved education system and opportunities to ensure that his two children, ages 8 and 10, remain in Louisiana as adults.
Meyers said she is a nationally certified teacher and a veteran of two decades in the Livingston Parish public schools.
In the District 8 field, Armstrong said he wants to widen the ranks of residents who take education seriously.
Guillory said he grew up with a “lower socioeconomic background” and earned an undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D.
Hill said she “understands when a child has to go home and there are no lights or food on the table and you have to go to school.”
Rutledge said he has two children ages 8 and 10 in public schools.
“I want an environment for them that is safe, caring and academically rigorous,” he said.