CENTRAL — A majority of incumbents will return to the seven-member Central Community School Board next year, but three board members are facing challengers for the Nov. 4 election.
Jim Lloyd, Roxanne Atkinson, David Walker and Jim Gardner were each re-elected without opposition when qualifying ended in August. But the incumbent members of districts 4, 6 and 7 each got one opponent.
The incumbents, all original board members first appointed in 2007, tout their experience from laying the groundwork for the Central Community School System, which broke away from the East Baton Rouge Parish system. Their opponents are younger political rookies who say the board is not planning wisely for the long term.
Since its inception seven years ago, the Central district has shown steady growth in enrollment and test scores. It has about 4,400 students and all of its schools except for one has an A grade from the state, based on student performance scores. The system as a whole is the third-highest rated in Louisiana.
Will Easley, who like the other two incumbents running this fall was appointed to the board in 2007 by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, said he wants to “keep building the school system” so it can expand programs such as night welding courses that put students on a path toward a job.
Easley, who is the 70-year-old retired founder and chairman of Trade Construction in Zachary, said many people overlook the workforce demand for vocational trades. It is natural for people to want their children to go to college, but some children just don’t want to go, he said.
“Education is about making a living,” he said.
Easley said like in all public Louisiana school systems, the Central district is dealing with mounting bills from teacher retirement. As more people retire, the contribution rate has gotten lower and the school system is now paying significantly more.
Philip Ziegler, 34, said such problems demonstrate his belief that more businesspeople should serve on the School Board. Ziegler is an insurance salesman with Q-Dent and a 1998 graduate of Central High School. His three children attend Central schools.
Ziegler said his relative youth should be an asset, saying he worries older School Board members “may not think about the future, and that’s how we got into the current situation.” Nationally, older generations are letting future generations pay their debt, he said.
“Locally, we don’t need to follow that mold,” Ziegler said.
Ziegler said he also wants to lower the student-teacher ratio. Central schools have 25 to 30 students per teacher, he said, which is higher than the state average.
Ruby Wallette Foil, 73, said she wants to continue shaping the future of Central schools. She was a teacher, counselor and principal at Bellingrath Hills Elementary for 28 years.
Foil said the board is doing a balancing act right now — trying to trim the budget, give teachers pay raises and work with insurance companies to cut down on the $20 million unfunded retirement liability in Louisiana. Even with all this, the system must maintain funding for necessities like sports and facility updates, she said.
“We’re at a point now that we really have to study what we have going and look closely at what’s working,” Foil said. “I want us to be sure we stay on the right track with our curriculum because we want to continue being really high-performing schools.”
Foil’s 31-year-old opponent, Nick Carmena, said he is worried about “Band-Aids” the board puts on problems. For example, Carmena said the school system will open a ninth-grade-only academy next year, but according to preregistrations, it has already outgrown its facilities and will need temporary buildings.
“What’s the point? That’s poor planning, and that has to stop,” he said.
Carmena believes “it’s time that our generation steps up and starts contributing something instead of barking from the sidelines.” He said he is also concerned about the snowballing unfunded liability from retirements.
Carmena, who works at a collision repair center, graduated from Central High School in 2001, and his 7-year-old son attends Tanglewood Elementary.
Incumbent Sharon Watts Browning said she wants to continue to be part of the School Board because of its successes in both academic and vocational programs.
“We want to enhance the child that wants to go to college and the child that wants to go to the workforce,” Browning said.
She said every senior at Central High took the ACT test last year, and their average composite score was 21.1 — higher than the Louisiana average of 19.2. At the same time, students in the nighttime welding class are “making $30 to $32 an hour right off the graduation stage,” she said.
Browning, 70, was an English teacher and counselor for 31 years at Central High, beginning in 1973 when the school first opened.
Felicia Braud, 54, said she wants to find a way to fix the unfunded liability and give teachers a cost-of-living raise they have not received since the inception of the Central school system. Solutions will depend on “how creative we can get with our tax money,” she said.
Braud is also concerned about Bellingrath and Tanglewood students who still hold classes in temporary buildings. Braud suspects the holdup for permanent buildings is because the School Board discarded a 30-year facilities plan it drew up in 2009, which she said was shortsighted.
Braud describes her background as “nothing grandiose, but enough life experience to know something needs to be done.” Until about a year ago, she operated a courier service and previously worked as an EMT. She attended Central Private School in the 1970s, but her two daughters graduated from Central High in 1998 and 2003.