As she seeks re-election, Connie Bernard is once again part of a field of four candidates seeking to serve on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
In 2010, the lone Republican running in District 8, she won outright, getting twice as many votes as her nearest opponent and avoiding a runoff.
This time, she is one of four Republicans running. While the boundaries of this south Baton Rouge district have expanded and lines have shifted, Republicans still predominate.
The election is set for Nov. 4 with a Dec. 6 runoff, if necessary. Early voting for the primary starts Oct. 21 and ends Oct. 28.
In her first term, Bernard has been part of a slim, unstable majority of the School Board beset by conflict and at times ugly debates, most notably during the 2012 superintendent search that led to the hiring of Bernard Taylor. Taylor plans to leave in June when his three-year contract expires.
Bernard is the only member of that majority not supported initially by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber — BRAC endorsed two of her opponents in 2010 — but belatedly came to support her post-election.
This time BRAC’s FuturePAC has again passed her over, instead selecting a challenger, insurance executive Chris Bailey, 35. Also throwing support to Bailey is the political action committee supported by Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby. Grigsby supported Bernard last time.
Bernard, 52, however, was recently endorsed by the parish Republican Party’s executive committee, on which Bernard sits; she recused herself from voting. The GOP committee did not endorse Bailey or Bernard’s other two opponents, Joan Wallyn, 54, a retired social worker, and Charles “Obie” O’Brien, 50, owner of a small trucking company.
Making the case for her re-election is not easy in a district where perhaps one out of 10 families with school-age children patronize the public school system.
“I just think that public school is so important to economic development,” she said. “Not that there is anything wrong with private schools, but we need to make sure there are opportunities for everyone.”
In contrast to her opponents and most of her constituents, Bernard is sending four children, three of them foster children, to public school. Bernard has a home-based public relations business and has experience managing nonprofit organizations.
Bailey is a first-time political candidate, not active in politics or a follower of the parish school system until recently. He, however, is looking for a school for his 3-year-old son and is wondering about his options.
As a consultant with Arthur J. Gallagher insurance company, he said he works on benefit issues with large employers, including a few school districts.
Bailey’s endorsements, particularly from Grigsby and people connected with him, have brought in $22,816 in contributions so far. That’s double the $9,632 Bernard has raised for her campaign. Wallyn is a distant third, raising just $1,452. O’Brien has reported no fundraising.
Bailey has adopted as his own the agenda of a Grigsby-formed PAC, Better Schools for Better Futures. That agenda includes shifting power to school principals, similar to unsuccessful legislation pushed by the chamber earlier this year. That agenda also includes embracing widespread school choice, including charter schools and publicly funded vouchers for private schools.
“A lot of people have identified the issues. All the legwork has been done,” Bailey said. “I think some people need to get involved who are not scared of the politics and can pull the trigger and get things done.”
Another newcomer, Wallyn, takes a much different approach. A licensed social worker who served in many roles for the state of Louisiana until she retired in 2006, Wallyn has become a student of the school system ever since. She has been an active board watcher, sitting in on regular meetings and attending all-day retreats. She has volunteered at schools and grown concerned with what she sees as the negative effect of past changes and attempts at reform.
Bailey, for instance, wants a new superintendent willing to cut teaching positions, redistribute power to principals and cut back Central Office even more than it’s been cut in recent years. “We’re doing a poor job of administration; that’s obvious,” he said.
Wallyn, by contrast, wants a conciliator, a person with connections to public schools in Baton Rouge as opposed to someone from elsewhere; all but one of the recent school superintendents in Baton Rouge have been outsiders.
“I think it would improve morale among their ranks if someone was selected from within their ranks, and someone who could do the job,” she said.
She also says her professional background makes her an ideal choice to try to bring together an often fractious board.
The final candidate in the race, O’Brien, does not appear to be campaigning and has been difficult to reach. When contacted at home recently by a reporter, O’Brien said to call back a few days later, but a few days later, a man answered the phone and said, “He’s not here,” and hung up.
District 8 straddles both the city of Baton Rouge and unincorporated areas of the parish that some residents are seeking to incorporate as the city — and eventually a possible breakaway school system — of St. George. It’s also an area with very few public schools, particularly none east of Bluebonnet Boulevard and south of Interstate 10.
Bailey and Bernard expressed concerns about the creation of a city of St. George but sympathize with the movement. While neither will say if they support the petition, they say they are in favor of a vote of the people if the petition gets sufficient signatures and that they will abide by the wishes of the public.
Bailey said too many families have moved to the suburbs seeking better schools, but he worries about the impact of a St. George win on the remaining schools in the East Baton Rouge school system.
“It makes a lot of sense, but my concern is the fallout,” he said.
Bernard said District 8 residents have more options today than they did four years ago, noting the new Mayfair Lab magnet school and the addition of specialized programs at Magnolia Woods and Wildwood elementary schools.
Bernard, however, said it’s high time for a new school to be built. She said she is pressing hard internally for that to happen.
“I never shut up about it,” she said. “I feel like a broken record.”
Wallyn said District 8 still lacks enough good options.
“We don’t have a high school, and there’s a lot of discontinuity within the zone,” she said. “You can have kids from the same subdivision that can go to 16 schools.”
She said she’s skeptical of the St. George incorporation effort based on what she’s heard so far but would implement it if it passed. Creating a St. George-tailored charter school, rather than forming a whole new school district, would have been quicker and made more sense, she said.
“If education was your primary driver, you would have gotten their job done in the last two years,” Wallyn said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed Oct. 13, 2014, to reflect that Joan Wallyn retired in 2006 as a social worker for the state of Louisiana.