The war over control of public education in Baton Rouge is the fiercest in the District 5 race for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Evelyn Ware-Jackson, seeking a second term on the board, has been part of a slim and unstable majority elected in 2010 with the backing of local business leaders, particularly the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby.
“The things we’ve accomplished have been really significant,” she said. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done, of course.”
During Ware-Jackson’s four years on the board, the school system has seen its test scores continue to improve, including when a dozen failing schools in 2013 improved from F to passing grades. The board has expanded its magnet program and approved a 30-months-in-the-making strategic plan.
At the same time, long-brewing dissatisfaction with public schools sparked a movement to create a fourth breakaway school district. Unsuccessful in the Legislature, breakaway supporters are pressing now to create the city of St. George; a successful incorporation, they hope, will give them momentum to return to the Legislature to create a St. George school district.
Meanwhile, some state and local leaders have sought to make Baton Rouge more like New Orleans, shepherding in a wave of new charter schools as well as publicly funded vouchers for private schools, competition that has drawn students and funding away from the parish school system.
Ware-Jackson said her greatest frustration has been the inability of adults with common interests to work together.
“The whole time I’ve been on the board, I’ve been trying to build bridges, but sometimes I will be in a meeting and I hear the whole bridge being torn down,” she said.
Two of Ware-Jackson’s opponents want to shift the balance of power on the board away from Ware-Jackson and her like-minded board members. One opponent, Jerry Arbour, sits on the board now. Another, W.T. Winfield, spent three years on the board — he was defeated in 2010 — and is a friend and ally of Arbour.
“A lot of people came to me saying they didn’t want the School Board to be taken over by Lane Grigsby and the chamber,” Arbour said.
“We have a lot of well-wishers,” Winfield said. “We are working hard to overcome the wall of money that we are facing.”
District 5 is a potential tiebreaker. Leaving out District 5, a sweep by all incumbents would produce a four-four split, with business-backed board members on one side and those who oppose them on the other side. A Ware-Jackson victory in District 5 would split the tie in favor of the business side. An Arbour or Winfield victory in District 5 would give the anti-business contingent a majority.
There’s a fourth candidate in the race who has not been a part of this war. Patty Merrick is a retired teacher and administrator who feels the voices of educators are not being heard.
“No one can be more concerned about education than an educator,” Merrick said. “I want the kids to be first. I have seen that the kids are not first.”
The election is set for Nov. 4 with a Dec. 6 runoff, if necessary. Early voting for the primary is Tuesday through Oct. 28.
The money is clearly with Ware-Jackson, so far. In late September, she reported having $21,180 in the bank, three times Winfield’s war chest and seven times what Arbour had left. Merrick reported no fundraising.
The District 5 that was drawn that night covers much of midcity and Old South Baton Rouge. It is well suited to Ware-Jackson, who voted for the reduction; Arbour voted against it. Ware-Jackson draws support from black and white Baton Rouge residents. In the 2010 race, she topped 50 percent in a three-person field, avoiding a runoff.
Ware-Jackson said that in her experience, smaller boards work better.
“Smaller boards have always been more productive, where we’ve gotten a lot more done with a lot less drama,” Ware-Jackson said.
Neither Arbour nor Winfield live in District 5. If victorious, they would have to move into the district by Jan. 1 in order to take office, which they say they will do. They can run because they live in neighboring districts from which District 5 was drawn.
The new maps put Arbour in the same district as David Tatman. On Aug. 22, just as qualifying was ending, Arbour withdrew from the District 9 race and jumped into the already crowded District 5 race.
Arbour considers a runoff inevitable, and that’s when he thinks the real race will begin.
“I don’t see how anybody in there, including me, could get to 50 percent,” Arbour said. “The vote is going to be really chopped up.”
Arbour’s entry complicates matters for Ware-Jackson. While she has support from black and white voters, Ware-Jackson is black and a Democrat, as are Merrick and Winfield. Arbour, by contrast, is white and a Republican, and stands out as a result. Indeed, he is a longtime member of the parish’s Republican Executive Committee, which endorsed him; Arbour recused himself from the vote. The parish’s Democratic Party has endorsed Winfield.
Arbour said the new District 5 has a majority of black registered voters, but has a white plurality, sometimes a majority, who show up at the polls. The district also includes several majority-white precincts Arbour has run in before.
“The turnout is what you look at, not whether there are more voters,” he said.
Arbour and Winfield routinely sided with each other as board members between 2008 and 2010.
Arbour and Winfield pressed to break the lock that one firm, now known as CSRS-Tillage Construction, had on school construction, and they ended up championing a Mobile, Alabama-firm, Volkert Inc. When Volkert was hired to handle millions of dollars worth of school repairs despite being more costly than three other bidders, including CSRS, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber demanded an investigation, setting in motion BRAC’s 2010 effort to oust incumbents.
Winfield said that in the years since leaving office, he has worked with Capitol High, where he served as president of that school’s alumni association. He said he had a good working relationship with then-Principal Roy Walker and wants that to be a model for his role as a board member.
“I just want to serve a supportive role to help people that have a desire to help our children so they can do their job,” Winfield said.
Merrick spent 33 years with the school system before retiring in 2010. She finished her time as dean of students at Ryan Elementary, a school that won a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award in 2009. She is now president of a local retired teachers association.
A key issue for Merrick is empowering parents, who she says too often face institutional barriers to helping their children succeed.
“I would like to have a hotline set up for parents to be able to call,” Merrick said. “Parents are saying they cannot meet with their principal, meet with their teacher, or the time given to meet is not at an opportune time.”
Whoever is elected will have the immediate problem of finding a new superintendent to replace Bernard Taylor, who is leaving in June when his contract expires.
Winfield said he’s not sure whether Taylor is automatically gone. He said he wants to talk to Taylor and leave open the option of him staying longer.
If a search occurs, Winfield and Arbour are against a national search, saying Louisiana has people galore who could do the job.
Ware-Jackson has been perhaps Taylor’s strongest advocate, even as other board members soured on the often combative superintendent. She tried unsuccessfully to persuade her colleagues to keep him longer.
“Some relationships broke down along the way,” she said ruefully. “On paper, you have to wonder why we’re not bringing him back.”
She said she’d like to avoid a repeat of the ugly 2012 search that led to Taylor’s hiring.
“It was very difficult,” she said. “I think we need to find out what some other districts are doing that work better and try that.”
Merrick said she’s seen lots of superintendents come and go, but the teachers are consistently ignored.
“We’re overly concerned about who is the superintendent and who is the principal and not worried about who the teacher is,” she said.