HAMMOND — Education and Tangipahoa’s economy took center stage Thursday night at the debate between parish president candidates Gordon Burgess and Carlos Notariano.
“Tangipahoa Parish is fast growing,” said Burgess, who is the incumbent. “We are the fourth fastest growing parish in the state.”
But, said Notariano, the parish has not grown as fast as it should have.
“In the last 10 years, Tangipahoa has not prospered,” he said. “We have been surrounded by aggressive growth.”
Notariano was referring to economic growth in Livingston and St. Tammany parishes, both of whom also sit on the Interstate 12 corridor. The economic gap between those two parishes and Tangipahoa is growing, Notariano said.
Notariano vowed to close that gap by moving economic growth initiatives from the study phase to the action phase, something he said has been a problem under Burgess’ leadership.
Burgess countered by describing a series of meetings scheduled over the next couple of weeks with out-of-state investors.
The debate’s first question was about the parish president’s role in the parish’s education.
The public school system is embroiled in a 46-year-old desegregation suit and earlier this year, four school tax proposals failed at the ballot box by historic margins.
Notariano, who referred to the school system as “broken,” said he would immediately form a liaison between parish government and the school board to help solve issues that may arise within the school system, without overstepping his authority.
“I will continue to help the schools in any way I can,” Burgess said. “I cannot hire teachers, but I will help.”
Both men praised school Superintendent Mark Kolwe, but acknowledged that the parish’s schools must improve if the parish is to keep up with surrounding parishes.
Several of the questions from moderator Kevin Hill focused on issues of particular concern to the black community.
One of those concerned the lack of public transportation in Tangipahoa Parish.
Burgess said starting a public transportation system would face many challenges, including cost and infrastructure, while Notariano pledged to study the idea during his first year in office if elected.
The two also squared off about the parish’s budgeting practices, minority contractors, and quality-of-life issues during the hour-long debate.
The debate was held in Tangipahoa’s African American Heritage Museum, and sponsored by the Second Saturday Breakfast Committee, a largely African-American community organization in Hammond.
For some in the audience, just having such an event at the African American Heritage Museum was a positive move.
“This is the first time many of us were even introduced to the parish president,” said Tanya Turner, of Hammond. Turner, a member of the social club Ladies of Divine Elegance, of Hammond, said her club had encouraged its members to attend.
“We are seeing their views,” she said.
Alma Mitchell, who also was in the audience, said the candidates didn’t do enough to address some immediate concerns of the black community.
“One of our main issues in jobs,” she said. “Unemployment in the minority community is around 15 percent.”
Mitchell said plans for future economic development were good, but that she had hoped to hear what the candidates would do now to correct the problem.
Both Notariano, a current member of the Parish Council, and Burgess, a long-serving parish president for more than two decades, described themselves as pleased with their performance.
“I am glad we had this opportunity to express our views,” Burgess said.
“I think I did very well,” said Notariano.
Future debates are planned, but the dates were not finalized, said Notariano’s spokesman Nick Gagliano.