An unusual battle of incumbents has emerged in the race for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board District 5 where Jerry Arbour and Evelyn Ware-Jackson are facing off in the Dec. 6 runoff election. The result could well determine the direction of the board over the next four years.
The two have spent the past four years on the opposite side of many debates. These range from the search that led to the 2012 hiring of Superintendent Bernard Taylor to the controversial reduction of the School Board from 11 to nine members — which led the two incumbents to run for the same seat.
Board members like Ware-Jackson, who won in 2010 with the support of local business leaders, have enjoyed a slim, but unstable one-vote majority in board decisions. Their supporters are spending heavily this year, not only to preserve but to expand that majority. Arbour’s defeat might mean a super majority of 6-3.
Arbour said he’s running to keep those business leaders from controlling the board.
“We need to look at the independence of the candidates,” he said. “That’s one thing I’m stressing.”
Ware-Jackson insists she is independent. She has been a strong supporter of Taylor’s, who has been at odds at times with local business leaders. She also opposed unsuccessful legislation pushed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber last spring that would have shifted most power from the board and the superintendent to school principals. The legislation failed in part because of stiff opposition from principals who balked at adding more job duties.
Ware-Jackson said the legislation was not well thought out, not to mention premature, since the school system was already experimenting with limited principal autonomy.
“I wish they would have said something to me early on,” she said. “I would have told them it needed more work.”
The two led a four-candidate field that carved up the vote.
Ware-Jackson was in front after the voting Nov. 4, earning just shy of 34 percent of the vote, while Arbour followed close behind with almost 32 percent. Challengers W.T. Winfield and Patty Merrick failed to make the runoff, receiving 25 percent and 10 percent of the vote, respectively.
The politics of the District 5 race are scrambled.
The strong business support for Ware-Jackson is atypical for a Democrat, especially when her opponent is not only a Republican, but a stalwart of the local Republican Party. Ware-Jackson explained that she is a small business owner and has long promoted economic development, especially in the mid-city area. She said some Republicans supporters are spreading the word about her.
“Just because I don’t have an ‘R’ behind my name doesn’t mean (voters) have to vote for the other person,” Ware-Jackson said. “I’m a reform candidate, and that’s why I’m getting so much heat.”
Arbour and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber parted ways in spring 2010 when Arbour, then board president, refused to agree to an outside investigation of an $18.3 million construction management contract granted to Mobile, Alabama-based Volkert Inc. after three other firms offered to do the work for less money.
BRAC led a campaign in 2010 that targeted all of the incumbents except Jill Dyason. Arbour, for his part, sought to portray the chamber as politically suspect, saying it endorsed “liberal” School Board candidates and supported Mayor-President Kip Holden’s failed bond initiatives in 2008 and 2009, describing each as a “tax hike.”
Since he was elected in 2005, Arbour has tried to keep up his conservative bona fides by harping on fiscal discipline and voting against rolling forward millages after property tax reassessments. In 2008, he even cut a commercial in favor of private school vouchers.
At the same time, Arbour has maintained good relations with local employee unions despite his 2007 vote against granting collective bargaining to school employees.
Merrick, a retired educator who has worked with the local chapter of the Federation of Teachers, has endorsed Arbour in the runoff.
“I believe if you look at his voting record, he votes for the kids,” Merrick said.
Winfield, an old friend and fellow board member from 2008 to 2010 as well as representative of the executive committee for the local Democratic Party, is also supporting Arbour.
The 2010 U.S. Census says 55 percent of District 5 residents are black. The district covers much of the downtown and midcity area.
JMC Analytics and Polling of Baton Rouge analyzed elections between 2008 to 2012 elections and found that white voters have outnumbered black voters in the precincts that comprise District 5, sometimes by wide margins.
“I believe that’s a white district,” Arbour said in August of District 5.
The “R” next to Arbour’s name may prove valuable if the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and U.S. Representative dominate turnout on Dec. 6 as some analysts expect.
Ware-Jackson agreed that’s a danger for her, saying she hopes Democratic candidates, particularly Mary Landrieu, can turn out her voters.
“The Republicans will be out to vote. I think that’s been (Arbour’s) game plan from the beginning,” she said.
That incumbents like Arbour and Ware-Jackson are on the same ballot at all is unusual. It goes back to the shrinking of the board to nine members.
The new nine-member map, approved July 24, pitted Arbour against another incumbent, board President David Tatman. It was the only district with more than one incumbent living within its boundaries.
Arbour initially qualified to run against Tatman. But on the last day of qualifying, he abruptly switched to District 5. Prior to that ,Ware-Jackson was the lone incumbent in the race.
If he wins, Arbour, in order to stay in office, will have to change his legal domicile from his home on French Village Avenue to somewhere within District 5, and do so by Jan. 1.