A majority of Louisiana’s top school board will be picked on Oct. 24 and will help decide whether self-styled reformers — including backers of Common Core — continue to dominate the public school debate in the state.
Eight races for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will be on the ballot, and at least six will be settled Oct. 24 because they feature one-on-one contests. The other two, including the race to succeed BESE President Chas Roemer, are expected to require runoffs on Nov. 21.
The stakes are huge after four years during which advocates of sweeping changes in public schools have controlled the board despite protests from teachers unions, the Louisiana School Boards Association and others.
The board sets policies for about 720,000 public school students in Louisiana.
The 20 candidates on the ballot have spent weeks campaigning at meet-and-greets, at civic clubs and on social media. Some are running TV and radio ads. Others are going door to door. Mass mailings also are popular.
The BESE members who take office in January will play a major role in deciding whether the controversial Common Core standards undergo major changes in 2016 after weeks of review.
The panel, including three members named by the next governor, also will decide whether state Superintendent of Education John White is retained after four years on the job. And the primary results will shed light on whether school vouchers, tougher teacher evaluations and school letter grades continue to enjoy majority support on BESE.
Here is an overview of the eight BESE districts up for grabs, who is running and what they say:
BESE District 1
This New Orleans-area districts matches BESE Vice President Jim Garvey against challenger Lee Barrios. Both are Republicans.
Garvey, 51, is a Metairie attorney.
He said accountability and transparency are his key issues and that school letter grades are the kind of policy that lets families know how their schools are faring.
“I bring stuff to the table that she doesn’t,” Garvey said of Barrios, citing his own legal and accounting backgrounds.
Barrios, 68, is a retired teacher who lives in Abita Springs.
The key issue, she said, is “the attack on the democratic foundation of public schools,” including the diminishing ability of taxpayers to affect policies through their local school boards.
“First of all, I am an education expert, and secondly, I represent a broad spectrum of people who are dissatisfied with the reforms that have been proposed,” Barrios said.
BESE District 2
In another New Orleans-area race, incumbent Kira Orange Jones, of New Orleans, is being challenged by Kara Washington, of Ama. Both are Democrats.
Jones, 36, has been executive director of Teach for America of Greater New Orleans for the past nine years.
“The No. 1 issue is still ensuring that every child has the opportunity to access a quality school, an excellent school,” she said.
Washington, 46, an assistant school principal, said she dislikes the way students are judged on standardized tests such as the ones aligned with Common Core.
She also said she is best qualified for BESE because of her 16 years in the classroom in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes.
BESE District 6
This Baton Rouge-area district includes five candidates who hope to succeed Roemer, who opted not to seek a third term.
They are Kathy Edmonston, of Gonzales; Jason Engen, of Baton Rouge; Jason France, of Baton Rouge; Etta S. Licciardi, of Loranger; and Laree Taylor, of Baton Rouge.
All are Republicans except France, who is a Libertarian.
Edmonston, 65, is a 21-year veteran of the Ascension Parish school system, where she mediates issues between families and schools.
“I want to begin to make changes as soon as I get on the board to alleviate the burden of Common Core for our parents, teachers and students,” she said.
She said she belongs on BESE because, of the five contenders, “I am the one closest to the classroom.”
Engen, 35, works for Southern Earth Sciences Inc., which specializes in geotechnical engineering, including foundation design and soil testing.
He said the top issue is the need to continue and expand the school changes launched in recent years, including vouchers.
Engen said he represents the business view among the District 6 candidates and that companies have a vested interest in a top-flight public school system. “We want to see them well prepared,” he said of students entering the job market.
France, 42, is a data analyst and former employee of the state Department of Education.
The top issue, he said, is Common Core and the curriculum that accompanied the revamped standards in reading, writing and math.
France said he has worked with virtually every office in the department, “so I understand just about every program you can imagine.”
Licciardi, 68, is a retired educator whose jobs included teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and nine-year member of the Jefferson Parish School Board.
She said she deserves a seat on BESE because of her abundance of education experience.
Licciardi said the top issue for public schools is finding the right approach for each student. “Everybody learns differently,” she said.
Taylor, 54, is principal of Devall Middle School in Port Allen and was a teacher for 20 years.
She said she is qualified for BESE through 30 years of education experience. “And in that time, I have had extensive training and have honed skills that have given me a very deep understanding of the needs of children,” she said.
Ensuring a rigorous education, especially for underserved students, is her top priority.
BESE District 8
This district, which also includes the Baton Rouge area, matches incumbent Carolyn Hill against challenger Jada Lewis. Both are Democrats, and both live in Baton Rouge.
Hill, a 33-year-old social worker, said her top concern is Common Core and the tests that go with it, which she has criticized for months.
She said she deserves re-election because she is a strong, visible voice for her community.
“I understand the policy; I understand the process for implementing the policies,” Hill said.
Lewis, 41, is assistant dean of the College of Engineering at LSU, where she oversees diversity.
“I think the No. 1 issue is just accessibility to a high-quality public school,” she said.
Lewis said she is qualified for BESE because of her education background, engagement in the community “and really understanding what college and career readiness means in preparing kids to be successful in college and in life.”
BESE District 3
This south-central Louisiana district matches incumbent Lottie Beebe against challenger Sandy Holloway, both Republicans.
Beebe lives in Breaux Bridge. Holloway lives in Thibodaux.
Beebe, 62, is superintendent of the St. Martin Parish School District.
She said the key issues are the lack of transparency at the state Department of Education and White, whom she cast the lone “no” vote against when he was hired by BESE in 2012.
“He is a nice young man,” Beebe said. “He just did not have the leadership skills, in my opinion.”
She said she deserves a second term to help forge “responsible” education changes, including what she calls remedies for flawed teacher evaluations.
Holloway, 61, is executive director of the Bayou Community Academy, a charter school in Thibodaux.
She said her top concern is “making sure that our teachers, local school boards, are held accountable for student learning.”
Holloway said she is qualified to serve on BESE because she spent 37 years as an educator, including classroom teaching and school administration.
BESE District 7
In southwest Louisiana, incumbent Holly Boffy, who lives in Lafayette, faces challenger Mike Kreamer, also of Lafayette.
Both are Republicans.
Boffy, 37, specializes in teacher and leader development for the Council of Chief State School Officers.
She said her top issue is “ensuring that our kids graduate college- and career-ready.”
Boffy said she has a child in public school, has 10 years of classroom experience, was recognized as a state Teacher of the Year and has been a BESE officer for three years.
Kreamer, 55, has been principal of St. Martinville Senior High School for the past 15 years.
“I am at high school every single day,” he said of his qualifications for BESE. “I know how the policies that are put in place affect a school. I am at a high-minority, high-poverty school. I understand the issues that schools like that deal with.”
The key issue, he said, is restoring confidence in the public school system and stemming what he calls the exodus of teachers.
BESE District 5
This northeast BESE district features a race to succeed Jay Guillot, who decided not to seek a second term.
Gary Jones, one of the candidates, has 44 years of education experience, including stints as superintendent of the Claiborne and Rapides parishes school systems.
“I think the most significant issue is going to be how are we going to deal with the funding crisis over the next four years,” said Jones, a 69-year-old Alexandria resident.
The other contender, Johnny Fatheree, who, like Jones, is a Republican, said teachers are handcuffed by too many non-essential duties, such as data collection and evaluations.
“I just think we have lost our way on education in Louisiana,” he said.
This northwest Louisiana district race includes Mary Harris, who was named to serve the unexpired term of Walter Lee, and challengers Tony Davis and Glynis Johnston.
All three are Republicans.
Davis, 34, lives in Natchitoches and is president of the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce.
He said that, as a business leader, he has worked with local schools on changes in early childhood education, industry-based certification and dual enrollment.
Johnston, 58, a third-grade teacher in Shreveport, said her top issue is Common Core.
“It has been a documented failure,” she said.
Harris, a Shreveport elementary school principal, did not return messages over a four-day period.