An increasingly expensive battle for control of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board came to an end Saturday with two of three business-backed candidates winning, cementing a clear 5-4 majority on the board that takes office in January.
Evelyn Ware-Jackson’s trouncing of fellow incumbent Jerry Arbour in the District 5 race sealed that victory. Ware-Jackson, a Democrat, won nearly two-thirds of the vote over Arbour, a Republican.
Arbour, who served as board president from 2008 to 2010, joined the board in 2005. He was a frequent flashpoint for controversy. He improved only 62 votes Saturday over his showing in the Nov. 4 election.
Mark Bellue’s resounding victory over Jennifer Andrews in the District 1 race was unsurprising because he almost won on Nov. 4. This time, Bellue, a Republican who was endorsed by local business leaders, earned almost six of every 10 votes cast over Andrews, a Democrat. They are both newcomers. Incumbent Mary Lynch was unable to make it into the runoff.
“I’m extremely excited about the future of this school system and eager to join my fellow board members,” said Bellue, an executive with LUBA Workers’ Comp.
Incumbent Connie Bernard, a Republican, held off business-backed challenger and fellow Republican Chris Bailey by just 431 votes Saturday. She may well join the business-backed majority. That would mean a 6-3 supermajority. Bernard was backed by some but not all of those leaders in 2010 and said she didn’t take it personally — “I always work with people,” she said. She, however, said she will maintain her independence and will seek to do the right thing.
“Who in the world would expect someone to align with them 100 percent of the time?” she asked.
Turnout Saturday ranged from 44 percent to 46 percent, similar to turnout a month ago.
Six incumbents already had cruised to re-election.
Districts 1, 5 and 8, which all had multiple candidates qualify, were unable to produce a winner Nov. 4 and consequently ended up in Saturday’s runoff elections.
To a great extent, this year’s School Board elections are a replay of ones held in fall 2010.
Once again, on one side are candidates supported by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby. They are pressing for business-backed reforms of public education, including expansion of charter schools.
On the other side are candidates who are supporters of traditional public education and oppose, to varying extents, the business-backed agenda.
In 2010, business interests spent more than $300,000 to win narrow control of the School Board. This year, they are on track to double that spending. They account for more than 80 percent of all money raised so far. Overall fundraising has topped $675,000.
The most expensive race is the fight for the midcity-centered District 5 race, where the candidates have raised more than $100,000, with more than $70,000 of that going to Ware-Jackson.
Roughly half of the money in the elections has taken the form of direct spending by outside groups. That’s a sharp contrast from earlier School Board elections when candidates raised money and controlled almost all political spending. Money has flowed in from donors out of state, most prominently from former New York City Mayor and billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who has plunked down at least $102,500.
From the start of this election season, the School Board was going to look different than it did in the past. The nine-member School Board that arrives in January is two seats smaller than the current 11-member board. The board on July 24 voted by a narrow majority and after many hours of debate to reduce its size. A subsequent challenge in state court to the last-minute redistricting was unsuccessful.
The nine new districts cover more territory and each have 7,000 more residents on average than the previous districts. In terms of residents, five are majority-white and four are majority-black.
Three seats — districts 3, 6 and 9 — never went to voters at all. In those, incumbents Kenyetta Nelson-Smith, Jill Dyason and David Tatman were re-elected without opposition. Arbour ended up jumping districts, which meant no one qualified to run against Tatman, while Nelson-Smith and Dyason had opponents who withdrew after losing court challenges to their residency. Tatman and Dyason, both Republicans, were supported by business leaders while Nelson-Smith, a Democrat, was not.
Seats in districts 2, 4 and 7 were filled Nov. 4 as incumbents Vereta Lee, Tarvald Smith and Barbara Freiberg easily dispatched their opponents. Lee and Smith, both Democrats, were opposed by business interests. Freiberg, a Republican, was supported by business leaders.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system, with more than 42,000 students, is the second largest in Louisiana. It is home to some of the highest- as well as some of the lowest-performing schools in the state.
In recent years, it has faced growing competition from charter schools and private schools that accept publicly financed vouchers. In the last 11 years, three parts of the parish — Baker, Central and Zachary — have broken away and formed independent school districts. Since 2012, some residents in the southeast part of the parish have sought to bolt as well. The effort has morphed into the effort to create a city of St. George, and, if successful, a companion school district.