A retired Albemarle vice president, an LSU professor active in fighting the southeast Baton Rouge school breakaway movement and a former accountant who now works for Teach For America are running in an Oct. 14 special election to replace Barbara Freiberg on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Mike Gaudet, Belinda Davis and Brian Adams have been here before. Sort of. In January, they were three of the five individuals who sought to be appointed to the District 7 seat, which became vacant after Freiberg won a seat on the Metro Council.
Gaudet, 64, who retired from Albemarle in 2014, won that appointment. District 7, which he’s served for the past nine months, stretches from LSU in the west to Kenilworth Parkway and Gardere Lane in the east. Its northern boundary mostly follows Perkins Road, though at one point it jogs north to take in part of the Garden District. It is bounded on the south by the Mississippi River.
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Gaudet has been active since joining the board, weighing in on a range of issues, pointing to his organizational and financial experience in the corporate world. Recently, he served on the negotiating team in renewing a facilities management contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark that resulted in $5.3 million in annual savings.
“It’s been a good experience,” Gaudet said.
On Oct. 14, voters will decide whether he stays on the board. A runnoff, if necessary, is set for Nov. 18. Whoever wins will hold the job just one year before having to face voters again in fall 2018.
Getting appointed in the first place wasn’t easy. The board deadlocked a week before one board member switched her vote from Davis to Gaudet.
Davis, 46, said she was disappointed, but decided then to take her case to the more than 22,000 registered voters in District 7.
“Hearing the people who came to testify on my behalf cemented my decision to run in the election,” she said.
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Davis is well-known in local public education circles. Since 2012, she has served as president of the parent group, One Community One School District. That group was formed to fight the proposed southeast Baton Rouge breakaway district. The fight later morphed into the effort to incorporate a city of St. George and later create a companion school district. Along the way, she’s won many allies in the school system with her strong defenses against the outside attacks on the district.
Adams, 59, had initially said he wouldn’t run in the special election, but later changed his mind. “Running for the School Board was sort of the last thing I ever thought I’d do,” he said.
But Adams, the only black candidate in the race, said he’s passionate about finding ways to improve public education, particularly for young black males, many of whom fail to graduate from high school. He serves as co-chair of the Urban Congress, which formed last year to help young African-American men in Baton Rouge. He also has mentored young people for years.
“We can’t wait until they get to high school to fix this,” Adams said. “It has to start before that.”
Davis is a supporter of traditional public schools and a charter school skeptic, while her opponents serve or have served on the boards of charter schools. Charter schools are public schools run by private groups via short-term contracts, or charters. Debates over charter schools have been a flashpoint in local school board elections over the past decade.
Gaudet is a founding board member of THRIVE charter school, leaving it in 2015. He also served on the board for Teach For America’s south Louisiana chapter.
Adams is chairman of the board for Laurel Oaks Charter School, which opened in Baton Rouge in August 2016. He said he will step down from that position if elected to the parish School Board.
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If elected, Davis said she will vote against those charter school applicants that don’t provide transportation for their students. She said she will reject even charter school applicants who are likely to successfully appeal their rejection to the state, which has occurred several times in the past.
“Our School Board members should be lobbying their state Legislature so charter schools can’t do an end-run around the local school board,” she said.
Gaudet said he supports charter schools, but also has pressed the parish school system to work more closely with struggling charter schools to improve.
“I am not opposed to choice, but I want the choices to be good,” Gaudet said.
Adams said he supports school choice of all sorts, including private school vouchers, but he wants charter schools to be unique from those in the school system.
“If all of our schools were A and B schools, (parents) would not pick charters,” he said.
Gaudet is a Republican, while both Adams and Davis are Democrats.
Gaudet, a Raceland native, moved to District 7 in 1984. Adams moved into his current home in in the district in 2000, after spending years living in Minnesota. Davis is the only native of Baton Rouge.
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As she’s campaigned, Davis has noted frequently that she is the only candidate in the race whose children attend public school.
“Every decision, good or bad, directly affects my family, and I think that gives me insight that Mr. Gaudet and Mr. Adams do not have,” Davis said.
Adams said he’s worked long hours throughout his career, making it hard to have a family. He said, though, he’s close to his extended family, including several nephews.
Gaudet said Davis is the only person who’s raised the issue about where his kids went to school. The son of Lafourche Parish public educators, Gaudet has served on the boards of the private Episcopal schools his three children attended.
“It’s not like I just wrote a check and left,” Gaudet said.