A new political action committee formed by Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby is running ads on local TV and radio programs, asking voters on Nov. 4 to press for change in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, including expanding school choice and giving school leaders more autonomy and budget control.
Better Schools for Better Futures, the group that was formed on Aug. 1, also has endorsed candidates in School Board races on Nov. 4, giving each $2,500, but beyond that “just a pat on the back,” spokesman Josh Howard said.
Howard said the group is promoting the candidates it’s endorsing on its new website and is considering sending out mailers. But its current $40,000 worth of radio and TV ads, including a planned second buy in October, will focus on issues rather than promoting specific candidates.
“Our goal will be to talk about the issues, talk about what’s needed for our kids and leave any negativity at the door,” Howard said.
The less-negative approach is in contrast to 2010 when Grigsby was the key financial backer of a series of negative mailers on incumbent School Board members. Despite withering attacks, three of the five targeted board members managed to win re-election. The result was a board divided 6-5 on an array of issues.
On July 24, the members voted to reduce the board to nine seats and approved a new set of election maps.
Six of the nine seats on the board are in contention on Nov. 4.
In those races, Better Schools for Better Futures has endorsed only two incumbents, Evelyn Ware-Jackson in District 5 and Barbara Freiberg in District 7. It has rejected incumbents in the other four races in favor of the following newcomers: Mark Bellue, District 1; Daniel Banguel, District 3; Robert Maxie, District 5; and Chris Bailey, District 8.
The first three are not a surprise. The incumbents in those districts, Mary Lynch, Vereta Lee and Tarvald Smith, were not invited for an interview.
“There were candidates that we knew we weren’t going to be in step with, so we felt like that interview was not necessary,” Howard said.
The endorsement of Bailey, an employee benefits consultant at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., over incumbent Connie Bernard, in District 8, is somewhat of a surprise. Grigsby gave Bernard money in 2010 when she won her first term on the board, though she failed then to win the endorsement of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s FuturePAC.
In an interview in early July with The Advocate, Grigsby indicated, without naming her by name, that Bernard might not make the cut this time. Unlike other rejected incumbents, Bernard interviewed with Better Schools, but came up short. The PAC also interviewed but did not endorse newcomers Charles “Obie” O’Brien and Joan Wallyn.
The PAC endorsed two incumbents who are being elected without opposition, Jill Dyason in District 6 and David Tatman in District 9. Kenyetta Nelson-Smith in District 3, who also is being elected without opposition, did not gain the group’s endorsement.
The endorsements were made by a five-member committee led by Grigsby and Richard Lipsey, a businessman and a member of the Louisiana Board of Regents. The other three members were representatives of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and Stand for Children.
Better Schools lists five issues, or goals, on its website that it is pursuing, but Howard said they were not litmus tests for candidates seeking endorsements. Those goals include expanding school choice and giving principals more autonomy, but also calls for hiring a “strong new superintendent,” sharing resources with the state-run Recovery School District and hiring an independent auditor to find money for expanded school choice and early childhood education.
Howard said Grigsby is a big supporter of Better Schools for Better Futures but is not its only financial backer.
Grigsby also gave $15,000 in early August to Stand for Children, which helped recruit candidates for this fall’s elections.