Mary Lynch is the incumbent in the race for the District 1 seat on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, yet she’s served on the board only for a few months, taking over after the untimely death of Randy Lamana in April.
Lynch has earned the blessings of Lamana’s family and received $300 in campaign donations from them.
But she also has drawn two opponents seeking to unseat her from her new perch. They are Jennifer Andrews, deputy director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, or A+PEL, and Mark Bellue, an assistant vice president of governmental affairs for LUBA Workers’ Comp.
This is Lynch’s first run for public office. She has worked as a meteorologist and as a long-term substitute teacher but is now a part-time office assistant at St. Thomas More Catholic Church. A mother of two children who advanced through the school system’s gifted program, Lynch prides herself on opposing “one size fits all” solutions to education problems and said she is working to bring together a divided board.
“The end goal is exactly the same for every board member: How do we increase student achievement, and how do we lure people back to the school system?” Lynch said.
Both of her challengers are also newcomers to political campaigns. Andrews has reported no fundraising so far, while Bellue has lined up the financial support of influential business leaders.
Andrews is a career educator who in 2011 joined A+PEL, a statewide teachers association that contrasts itself with traditional teachers unions. She said it is her experience as a mother of children in public school, not her A+PEL service, that prompted her to run. There are too few quality teachers in the classroom, and parents struggle to find good school options close to home, she said.
Bellue, a graduate of Belaire High, has spent his career in insuranc. Bellue is a friend of David Tatman, the president of the board, and had been part of an effort to find someone to run for District 1. When no one approached could be persuaded, he decided to run himself.
“I think that this does give people a clear choice,” Bellue said. “Those who are happy with our school system, they can go with the incumbent.”
The election is set for Nov. 4 with a Dec. 6 runoff, if necessary. Early voting for the primary starts Monday and ends Oct. 28.
All six School Board races on the Nov. 4 ballot pit a favorite of business leaders against a candidate critical of the business-supported education agenda. As of late September, Bellue, the business-backed candidate, had raised $14,400, compared to $6,675 for Lynch, the business critic.
Andrews is a wild card. She’s a black Democrat running against two white candidates in a majority-white district; Bellue is Republican, and Lynch is not registered with a political party.
The shadow of Lamana, who served on the board for seven years, looms over this race.
After she was appointed by the board on May 2, beating six other folks vying for the job, Lynch addressed the Lamana family, who were present, and pledged to try to live up to his legacy.
“I have awfully, awfully big shoes to fill,” Lynch said.
An early test came on July 24 when the School Board agreed by a 6-5 vote to shrink its size from 11 to nine members in time for this fall’s elections. Reducing the board’s size was heavily pushed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, first unsuccessfully in the Legislature and later successfully by the board itself.
Lynch opposed the move, in part, because Lamana had vehemently opposed it. Lamana was originally supported by BRAC in 2007, but the business organization turned on him in 2010, although it failed to oust him. Lamana died April 16 of a heart attack as he was leaving the State Capitol. Earlier that day, he had attended a hearing on the board-reduction legislation.
During the July 24 debate, Lynch said a smaller board would not bridge the often ugly divides on the board she’s witnessed.
“Here’s a novel thought,” she said. “Let’s work on the words compromise and cooperation.”
The July 24 vote changed District 1 substantially from the district Lynch currently represents. The northeast area of Pride and Cheneyville, which Lamana represented since 2007, has been moved into another district. The new District 1 is now dominated by the Broadmoor area, stretching from west to east from Airline Highway to the Livingston Parish line.
Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby and his new group, Better Schools for Better Futures, did not even invite Lynch for an interview. According to a spokesman for that group, those not invited were considered “out of step” with their agenda.
“You know nothing about me, but you made that decision based on me sitting on the board for three months,” Lynch said.
The group’s agenda includes giving school principals more autonomy, 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.
Bellue agrees with that agenda and has earned the endorsement of Better Schools, as well as BRAC’s political action committee.
Bellue, however, said there is more he wants to tackle. For instance, he points to the school system’s strategic plan, approved in September 2013 but little referenced since. He specifically endorsed the plan’s suggestion that the school system create a “choice” one-stop shop in places like Broadmoor to better educate parents about their school options. “Let the public decide what they’re looking for,” he said. “We should trust the public to decide what they want, rather than forcing what schools they can go to.”
While he said he supports charter schools, as a board member he would be choosy.
“I think the process needs to be carefully done to ensure track records of success,” he said.
Andrews and Lynch said they want to expand the magnet program to create programs that will give better options to students within current schools, as well as attract more families.
Lynch said a carefully done expansion of magnets should not cost much more than current spending.
“You’re not changing personnel; you’re changing how you allocate personnel within the school system,” she said.
Andrews has three children. She sent one for a time to nearby Broadmoor High but came away disenchanted. Her youngest son now crosses town to attend a magnet program at Scotlandville High School.
She said she’d be more likely to patronize Broadmoor High if that school had more to offer.
“Given the state of the school system, I understand people wanting choice,” she said.