A north Baton Rouge district School Board election is pitting a political newcomer seeking systemwide changes against one of the longest-serving members of the board.
Baton Rouge lawyer Tarvald Smith, the sitting board vice president, was first appointed to the board in 2004 to fill an unexpired term and was subsequently re-elected in 2007 and 2010, when he was unopposed. But this fall he picked up a challenger for the District 4 seat in U.S. Navy veteran Robert Maxie Sr., the father of six children, including five attending East Baton Rouge Parish public schools. This past term, Smith was a part of the board’s five-member minority voting bloc that was regularly outnumbered by a slim majority of board members backed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which has been increasingly involved in School Board politics in recent years.
Smith, a Democrat, is a defender of the academic achievements of the school system over the past decade and a critic of BRAC’s aggressive efforts to influence the board. Smith, who has previously worked as an assistant district attorney and for the state Attorney General’s Office, said he brings a level of experience and institutional knowledge that is vital given the intense state of flux facing the school system.
“There are constant threats and changes to public education in general, from Common Core to school takeovers and threats of the pullout in (the proposed city of) St. George,” he said. “I’ve been on the front line fighting that, to keep this community whole and to keep the school system whole.”
Like Smith, Maxie is a Baton Rouge native, but he’s spent 16 years traveling the country as an operations specialist in the military. Maxie, also a Democrat, has only been back in Baton Rouge for about a year and a half and said he wants to serve his community.
Maxie left the Navy after suffering an injury, finding a new career as a substance abuse counselor. He works as the clinical supervisor at the Baton Rouge Treatment Center.
Maxie said his motivation to seek office stems in part from his experiences as a father, along with his observations at work about how many addicts had dropped out of school.
“I look around my clinic and almost half of my patients don’t have high school degrees, and that bothers me,” he said. “That tells me that a lot of them have been kicked out of schools or dropped out. That’s where I want to focus — prevention. Prevention starts in schools.”
He said he thinks many of the problems with the school system are rooted in infighting among the current board members, and he said he’s disturbed by the board’s consistently split votes.
“If there’s a problem in the body, it usually starts in the head,” he said. “If we can get the head to start thinking as a board and not just as a bunch of individuals, then we can do some more work in the school system to turn it around.”
Smith said the board has been effective, despite often being at odds. He said they’ve grown the magnet and gifted programs and overseen unprecedented school construction. He noted that right now there are no new schools eligible for state takeover and maintained that enrollment for charter schools is down, perhaps indicating that more families — particularly in his district — are choosing the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.
But Smith credited BRAC’s influence on some board members for the divisions. He said in his district, parents and taxpayers distrust BRAC’s motivations and are concerned that the chamber is angling to privatize education.
“We’re going to have differences, that’s a fact of life, but we should be able to work out differences and put the best interests of the school district ahead of whatever special interests are out there,” he said. Maxie said he supports the business-backed reforms for the school system. He agreed with a BRAC-written bill aiming to give principals more autonomy that failed in the state Legislature this past year. If elected, he said he would like to see the board take on an effort to give principals more authority, such as the ability to hire and fire their own staff.
He also is supportive of charter schools, public schools run by private organizations via contracts, and other school choice options.
“School choice is like a business,” he said. “When a business comes up on the side, you have to get better at those services that they give to bring people back into their schools.”
Smith, on the other hand, was an opponent of the BRAC bill. He said principals didn’t want the additional burdens of having to oversee their school budgets and he thought BRAC did a poor job of making its case and seeking input from the community and educational leaders.
While he recognizes that charter schools have a negative financial impact on the school system, Smith said he also supports charters.
Despite Maxie’s support of BRAC’s restructuring plans, he did not receive an endorsement or political donations from FuturePAC, BRAC’s political action committee.
He did receive a $2,500 donation from Better Schools for Better Futures, which is businessman Lane Grigsby’s PAC. Grigsby has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to backing candidates who support business-backed reforms for public education.
The election is set for Nov. 4. Early voting for the primary starts Tuesday and ends Oct. 28.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.