A week made all the difference in unlocking a deadlocked East Baton Rouge Parish School Board trying to decide between two candidates to fill the vacancy created after District 7 member Barbara Freiberg was elected to the Metro Council.
Thursday night, School Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson switched her vote to retired Albemarle executive Mike Gaudet, installing him as the temporary member to fill the seat until the fall election.
The 5-3 vote put Gaudet over Belinda Davis, 45, an associate professor in political science at LSU who lives on the LSU campus.
On Jan. 12, the board deadlocked 4-4 three times in a row, with Ware-Jackson voting then for Davis.
On Thursday, the board also heard from supporters of both candidates.
Lara Gautreau, a public school parent, urged the board to vote for Davis, noting her long record of activism on behalf of the parish schools, including fighting the creation of a southeast Baton Rouge breakaway school district, which later morphed into the movement to incorporate the city of St George.
“She has already been in the trenches with you all, not just St. George, but on other issues,” Gautreau said.
Gaudet, 63, also had several people sing his praises.
“He’s always fair, reasonable and calm,” said Vee Morrow, a retired school system employee who said she’s gotten to know Gaudet through their church. “If I ever need anything, all I have to do is call Mike.”
Here how the District 7 vote broke down:
For Gaudet: Mark Bellue, Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason, David Tatman and Ware-Jackson.
For Davis: Dawn Collins, Vereta Lee and Kenyetta Nelson-Smith.
Immediately after that vote, the board named a new president and vice president: Ware-Jackson and Connie Bernard, respectively.
Ware-Jackson is moving up from vice president, the position she served in under the departed Freiberg in 2016. Bernard is joining the board leadership for the first time. Both have served six years on the board.
Kenyetta Nelson-Smith was nominated for both president, then vice president, but fell short in both cases. The votes were 6-3. Gaudet was the sixth vote for Ware-Jackson and Bernard, joining the majority that supported his candidacy.
If the deadlock had persisted until midnight Friday in filling the District 7 vacancy, Gov. John Bel Edwards would have filled the seat instead.
Both Davis and Gaudet say they will run for the seat in the Oct. 14 special election. A runoff, if necessary, would be held Nov. 18.
District 7 stretches from LSU in the west to Kenilworth Parkway and Gardere Lane in the east. Its northern boundary mostly follows Perkins Road, though at one point it jogs north to take in part of the Garden District. It is bounded on the south by the Mississippi River.
Five residents of District 7 submitted their names to replace Freiberg, who represented the area for six years before winning a seat on the Metro Council in the Dec. 8 election. The three other candidates for the school board seat were Brian Adams, Karen Duffy and Will Minton. Of those three, only Duffy, a former schoolteacher, said she plans to run in the fall.
On Jan. 12, only Davis and Gaudet were nominated. But on Thursday, Ware-Jackson broke ranks and nominated Adams, 58, director of district and school partnerships for Teach For America. Adams represented a compromise, since he pledged not to run in the election this fall.
The initial vote was 3-3-2. Board member David Tatman joined Ware-Jackson as a second vote for Adams, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the three votes each for Davis and Gaudet.
The fall election, 10 months away, loomed big Thursday.
Gaudet, who is Republican, ruffled feathers when he pointed out that District 7 usually votes Republican, often by wide margins. He noted that Davis is a registered Democrat, which he said given recent history would make it difficult for her to win in the fall.
“To put this district in the hands of someone, even for a few months, who is registered as Democrat, is disrespectful to the voters of that district,” Gaudet said.
Board member Lee, who is a Democrat, immediately reacted negatively, saying she was having a “heart attack” after hearing Gaudet. Lee said partisan affiliations shouldn’t be a factor in filling the seat.
Board member Collins, a former executive director of the Democratic Party in the parish, disputed Gaudet’s history.
“That area voted for Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, and it voted for our new mayor (Sharon Weston-Broome),” Collins said.
Gaudet later partially walked back his comments, saying he was just pointing out that he brings a particular political philosophy to the job, but said he’s open to other points of view.
Gaudet retired in 2014 as a vice president from Albemarle after spending 30 years with the company and continues consulting for them. Born to a family of Lafourche Parish educators, Gaudet has served on boards for the private schools his three children attended, St. Luke Episcopal Day School and Episcopal High School. He’s also served on the board for THRIVE Charter School and for Teach For America in south Louisiana, the same board Adams served.
Gaudet said he sent his three children to St. Luke’s Episcopal Day School and Episcopal High School in part because of the education those schools offered but also because he is an active Episcopalian.
The Rev. Ralph Howe, a senior pastor at St. James Episcopal Church, said he served with Gaudet for years on the board of Episcopal High.
“I have seen his great love for children and them being educated,” Howe said.
Gaudet’s wife, Margie, also spoke. A physical therapist, she said her husband is big-hearted, but also analytical.
“While I am weeping over one life, Mike is the one strategically thinking about how to save 100 lives,” she said.
Many of Davis’ supporters were like her, parents of public schoolchildren.
Tania Nyman said Davis required no learning curve.
“Her understanding of the public school system is profound and unmatched by most,” Nyman said.
A note exasperation tinged the comments of several Davis supporters.
“She’s the most qualified candidate and you all know that,” said Carlos Thomas, parent of two public schoolchildren. “Do the right thing. Do the right thing and vote for Belinda Davis.”
Board member Bernard, who represents neighboring District 8, said Gaudet is a better fit for District 7 and is more in line with Freiberg.
“Mike (Gaudet) has lived in the district for the past 30 years,” Bernard said. “I believe he exemplifies the value of the voters of District 7.”