Eleven days before the Nov. 4 election, billionaire and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg gave $100,000 to a newly formed group that is trying to tip the balance in the battle for control of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Two $2,500 Bloomberg checks for individual candidates came soon after, helping a candidate in East Baton Rouge Parish and one in Jefferson Parish. Evelyn Ware-Jackson, a Baton Rouge candidate now in a runoff battle, received one. The other check went to April Williams in Jefferson Parish, who failed to make the runoff in her race.
Bloomberg’s infusion of campaign cash brings fundraising so far in all East Baton Rouge Parish School Board races to nearly half a million dollars.
Almost all of that money is benefiting candidates supported by local business leaders, particularly Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. They are pressing for business-backed reforms of public education, including expansion of charter schools. They have been opposed by candidates who are supporters of traditional public education and who oppose, to varying extents, the business-backed agenda.
Those leaders likely have already won a bare 5-4 majority, based on the Nov. 4 results. That possible voting bloc could grow to a 6-3 majority, depending on the outcome of the Dec. 6 runoff between Ware-Jackson and fellow board member Jerry Arbour for the District 5 seat.
Bloomberg, who spent 12 years as New York’s mayor, first made a splash in Louisiana politics in 2011 when he pumped $545,000 into campaigns as part of a successful effort by business leaders to take control of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
As mayor of New York, Bloomberg was a passionate backer of charter schools, public schools run by private groups, and he has regularly tapped his fortune to donate in school board elections across the country.
In 2012, Bloomberg continued to invest in Louisiana races, giving $5,000 to Sarah Usdin’s successful campaign for Orleans Parish School Board.
Bloomberg’s latest giving, reported in new campaign finance reports, makes him the second-biggest contributor to East Baton Rouge Parish School Board races. The top giver remains Grigbsy. Individuals and groups connected to Grigbsy, along with the businessman himself, have contributed more than $200,000 to School Board campaigns so far. Like Bloomberg, they also have supported Ware-Jackson and Williams.
Bloomberg’s $100,000 check went to a group called Improve Our Schools LLC, which was incorporated Oct. 13 and lists as its officers Andy McCandless and Stephen Babcock.
McCandless is the co-owner of Bascom-Hunter, a Baton Rouge company that does engineering services and provides communications equipment to the military, while Babcock is a local attorney. The only other reported contribution to Improve Our Schools, just $100, came from Babcock.
McCandless has given Ware-Jackson a total of $900, going back to 2010. On Oct. 13, he also gave $100 to the new Grigsby-formed political action committee Better Schools for Better Futures, the same day Improve Our Schools was incorporated.
Improve Our Schools has spent at least $12,000 so far, almost all of it on mailers. It ended October with almost $88,000 still in the bank.
One of its mailers attacked two of Ware-Jackson’s opponents in the District 5 primary: Arbour and challenger W.T. Winfield. The mailer questioned whether their involvement with a nonprofit organization posed a conflict with their service on the School Board.
Arbour and Winfield are old friends who served on the board together from 2008 to 2010. Winfield was defeated in 2010 and failed to make the runoff in District 5 this time.
In an interview last week, McCandless would say little about how Bloomberg came to make a big contribution to the Improve Our Schools group. He said only that he knows Bloomberg through “mutual acquaintances.”
McCandless noted Bloomberg’s past giving in Louisiana elections and support of charter schools.
“We have some opportunities with charter schools here, and I think he recognizes that,” McCandless said.
As mayor, Bloomberg took an unprecedented interest in New York City schools. The New York Legislature allowed him to essentially take over the schools not long after he was elected in 2001.
John White, the state superintendent of education in Louisiana, worked for the New York City school department under the Bloomberg administration.
Campaign finance records show that since February 2010, Bloomberg has given $660,000 to Louisiana political campaigns. A total of $200,000 of Bloomberg’s money went to a political action committee backed by Grigsby called the Alliance for Better Classrooms that led the charge to replace BESE members in 2011.
On Nov. 5, the day after the election, Alex Johnston, an education adviser to Bloomberg, posted a memo online recounting how Bloomberg-backed candidates did across the country, including his support for “pro-reform local school board candidates in East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.”
Johnston described those contributions as building upon the “crucial” work of Bloomberg-supported BESE members, “including defending the continued implementation of Common Core after Governor (Bobby) Jindal reversed course and opposed the new standards.”
Johnston added there is “strong potential to win super-majorities in runoff elections next month.”
McCandless said promoting the Common Core educational standards is not a big factor in Bloomberg’s support for Improve Our Schools.