A retired Albemarle vice president and an LSU professor active in fighting the southeast Baton Rouge school breakaway movement are the leading contenders to replace Barbara Freiberg on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, but the board was unable Thursday to decide between them.
Unable to break a 4-4 tie after three successive votes, the School Board agreed unanimously to try again at its Jan. 19 regular meeting to pick someone to temporarily represent District 7, which is located in south Baton Rouge.
Mike Gaudet, 63, the retired Albemarle executive, and Belinda Davis, 45, president since 2012 of the pro public school group One Community, One School District, were the only names put in nomination Thursday. They were among five individuals who submitted their names.
If the board fails to select someone by midnight Jan. 20, Gov. John Bel Edwards gets to fill the seat.
Immediately after postponing filling District 7, the board agreed unanimously to put off picking a new board president -- also to replace the departed Freiberg -- and a new vice president.
If the board can muster a majority on Jan. 19, the person selected will serve until an Oct. 14 special election with a runoff, if necessary, held Nov. 18. Whoever wins the District 7 election will serve the remainder of Freiberg’s term, which ends in December 2018.
Here how the vote broke down:
For Davis: Dawn Collins, Vereta Lee, Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Evelyn Ware-Jackson.
For Gaudet: Mark Bellue, Connie Bernard, Jill Dyason and David Tatman.
Acting President Ware-Jackson usually votes with the four board members who voted for Gaudet, but she ended up casting three successive votes for Davis.
While complementary of Gaudet, noting his financial and planning acumen, Ware-Jackson said she knows Davis well. She said she appreciates her work in the past for the school district, and that Davis, like herself, is a public school parent and knows the issues parents face. Davis has three children in public school while Ware-Jackson has one.
“This is a very difficult for me. I could make this real easy,” Ware-Jackson said. “I’ve stayed up all night long, and looked at the résumés all night long.”
Ware-Jackson said her preference would have been to pick a candidate who was not planning to run in October and let the voters decide Freiberg’s permanent replacement but failed to persuade he colleagues of the idea. Two candidates, Brian Adams and Will Minton, fit that description; both of them said they are not planning to run in the fall.
By contrast, Davis, Gaudet and the fifth candidate, Karen Duffy, said they are considering running in the fall. Davis said she’s running no matter what happens Jan. 19. Gaudet said he’s definitely running if he’s appointed, but if he is not appointed will decide closer to the election whether or not to run.
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.
Davis and Gaudet were the only names put in nomination Thursday, but board members had good things to say about the whole field. Adams is a recruiter for a teacher placement organization, Duffy is a former schoolteacher now a stay-at-home mother of two girls, and Minton is an administrator with an early childhood network in Pointe Coupee Parish.
Freiberg, who was elected Dec. 8 to the Metro Council after six years on the School Board, did not endorse any of the five candidates, but said she is gratified such a good group of individuals sought her old job.
“I don’t think this board could make a wrong choice with any of you,” Freiberg said.
Davis, an associate professor in political science at LSU who resides on the LSU campus, had the most people speak in her favor, several of them public school parents like herself who became politically active starting in 2012 to fight the proposed breakaway school district in Southeast Baton Rouge and yet again, when that morphed in the St. George movement.
Lara Gautreau urged the board to reward Davis’ effort on behalf of the school system.
“I just hope that you honor that commitment by making the right choice,” Gautreau said.
“There’s no one who matches her in her policy knowledge,” said Anna Fogle. “It’s always humbling to talk to her, because she know’s so much.”
Carnell Washington, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, said Davis can always be counted to enter the fray in support of the school system.
“She has been a fighter,” Washington told the board, “more of a fighter than some of you have been.”
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 they offered but also because he is an active Episcopalian.
“I want all children to have the same quality education my children had,” Gaudet said.
Gaudet had several people speak on his behalf, including his daughter, Dr. Amy Rabalais, an ENT in Baton Rouge.
“He has no ego in this, no further personal or political plans,” Rabalais said. “He’s just doing this to support the children of East Baton Rouge Parish like he has with his own children.”
Sarah Broome, founder of THRIVE, said Gaudet took her in in 2008 after the apartment she was sharing with four other new teachers was destroyed in Hurricane Gustav. She said she planned out her dream for the charter school in Gaudet’s living room and that Gaudet’s financial and strategic thinking was crucial to its creation and eventual success.
“Mike is a great asset,” Broome said. “He cares deeply but will also help you pull all the pieces together.”