The fight for control of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has grown ugly at times, especially in the three races that have gone into overtime and that voters will settle on Dec. 6.
Six incumbents have already cruised to re-election, producing a 3-3 split between board members supported and board members opposed by local business interests.
The Nov. 4 results mean those interests are likely to win a bare 5-4 majority on Dec. 6. That majority could grow to a 6-3 majority, depending on the outcome of the District 5 race.
Districts 1, 5 and 8, which all had multiple candidates qualify, were unable to produce a winner Nov. 4, though Mark Bellue in District 1 and Connie Bernard in District 8 came close.
Only one of the six candidates on the Dec. 6 ballot, Jerry Arbour, who is running in District 5, is not favored by Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby, the main business players in the local School Board elections.
The other five School Board candidates in the Dec. 6 runoff either are endorsed by BRAC — specifically its political arm, FuturePAC — and Grigsy or have received financial support from one or both in the past.
BRAC and Grigsby gave Bernard money four years ago, but they have endorsed and financed her opponent, Chris Bailey, so far in the District 8 race. Newcomer Jennifer Andrews, a Democrat, had been self-funding her late-starting campaign until she received a late infusion of money from a Grigsby-affiliated group right before election day.
“They told me they were going to do a mailer, and I was shocked,” said Andrews. “A lot of people didn’t know who I was, so that helped.”
Andrews, who is deputy director A+PEL, a teacher association, is facing Bellue, a Republican, in the Dec. 6 runoff.
Mary Lynch, who was opposed by BRAC and Grigsby, received just shy of 20 percent of the vote in the Nov. 4 primary, missing the runoff. Lynch was appointed in May to fill the unexpired term of Randy Lamana, who died April 16. Lynch, unlike her two opponents, is not registered with a political party.
This year’s school board elections are similar to but less nasty than the ones in fall 2010.
As they did in 2010, BRAC and Grigsby are backing a slate of candidates they see as amenable to business-backed reforms of public education, including expansion of charter schools. They spent more than $300,000 in 2010 to win narrow control of the School Board. This year, they are on track to spend a similar amount to keep and perhaps expand that control.
In 2010, they spent more of that money on political attacks. Grigbsy bankrolled an organization just for such attacks, calling it Students First.
This time, Grigbsy has a new group, Better Schools for Better Futures, that has pledged to take the high road, focusing instead on promoting an agenda and the candidates it has endorsed in hopes of enacting that agenda.
BRAC and Grigbsy are opposed by candidates who are supporters of traditional public education and who oppose, to varying extents, the business-backed agenda.
Three of the five board members targeted by business interests in 2010 nevertheless managed to win re-election. The result was a board divided 6-5 on an array of issues.
The 11-member board is being reduced to just nine members. That same 6-5 majority of the board voted July 24 after many hours of debate to reduce its size. A subsequent challenge in state court to the last-minute redistricting was unsuccessful.
While most of the political advertising this election has focused on promoting candidates, there are exceptions.
Improve Our Schools LLC, a group incorporated Oct. 13, sent out mailers on behalf of a few candidates supported by local business leaders, but sent out a mailer attacking Arbour and W.T. Winfield in the District 5 race. Arbour and Winfield, old friends, served on the board together from 2008 to 2010; Arbour won re-election in 2010. Winfield was defeated in 2010 and failed to make the runoff in District 5 a week ago.
Andy McCandless and Stephen Babcock are the officers of Improve Our Schools. Babcock is a local attorney. McCandless is co-owner of Bascom-Hunter, a Baton Rouge company that does engineering services and provides communications equipment to the military. McCandless has given money to Arbour’s runoff opponent, Evelyn Ware-Jackson, as well as to Grigsby’s Better Schools for Better Futures.
In District 8, Bernard, who is Republican, was the subject of an email attack and later a robocall from former Legislative Auditor and state GOP party Treasurer Dan Kyle.
Bernard highlighted, via her own mailer, the fact that Cleo Fields, former U.S. Representative and prominent Democratic politician, endorsed Bailey, a Republican. Fields named Bailey on a “Cleo Fields Ticket” that went out to some but not all of District 8 voters.
“I figured those who didn’t get it should get it as well,” Bernard said.