The balance of power on the Jefferson Parish School Board hangs in the balance as voters go to the polls Saturday to decide whether candidates supported by the parish’s business community or by the teachers union will take the final two seats on the board.
The majority of the seats were decided in the Nov. 4 primary, leaving only the contests in Districts 2 and 7 up in the air. The District 2 race pits Rickeem Jackson against Ricky Johnson, while the District 7 race features board member Mark Jacobs against political newcomer Melinda Doucet.
The two races will determine whether business-backed members retain control of the School Board or if those who support the Jefferson Federation of Teachers gain a majority. Three candidates from each faction won outright in the primary, while board President Mark Morgan, who has cast votes with both sides over the years, was re-elected without opposition.
The union-business conflict dominated all of the parish’s School Board races this year, as the union has sought to retake a majority on the board from the business candidates who took control four years ago.
The conflicts between the two groups have played out in debates over whether the board should approve a collective bargaining agreement with teachers, whether seniority or effectiveness should determine which teachers are laid off and other employment issues.
The remaining two races are clearly divided, with Jacobs and Jackson getting support from the parish’s business community while Doucet and Johnson have the backing of union groups.
The race for the District 2 seat features two political newcomers vying for a West Bank seat created to give the board a second district with a predominantly minority population.
Johnson, a construction inspector and pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Harvey, led in the primary with more than 38 percent. Jackson was about 4 percentage points and 400 votes behind. April Williams, the third candidate in the race, took about 27 percent.
Johnson and Jackson are both Democrats.
Johnson, 57, has touted his ties to the Jefferson Parish community, contrasting himself with an opponent he paints as an outsider.
“I love this place. I’ve been here all my life,” he said. “I’m not a newcomer to this place, and I’m not a newcomer to the kids in this area.”
Jackson is the executive director of the Rickey Jackson Community Hope Center, a nonprofit started by and named for his father, the former New Orleans Saints star linebacker, to work with at-risk students.
Jackson did not respond to requests for an interview about his campaign.
Early in the campaign, several residents filed a lawsuit asking that Jackson’s candidacy be thrown out on the grounds he had not lived in the district for the two years required to seek the seat. A judge dismissed that challenge after Jackson’s attorneys argued that despite only recently getting a Louisiana driver’s license and voter registration, he had considered his father’s house in Harvey his home while he was attending college in Pennsylvania.
Johnson has blasted the current School Board members for closing underperforming West Bank schools rather than trying to improve them. Reopening some of those schools could provide a way to reduce overcrowding on other campuses and would take little capital investment, since the buildings themselves are already there, he has said.
The school system also should bring effective teachers from successful schools in the parish to lower-performing schools to help train the educators there, Johnson said, and it should focus on improving schools within the system rather than bringing in charter school operators, he said.
Johnson has been supportive of several issues raised by the union and said he would support a new collective bargaining agreement. He also said the school system should focus on hiring local educators rather than relying on programs such as Teach for America, which brings in recent college graduates to teach in the schools for several years each.
“We should protect our Jefferson Parish schoolteachers,” he said. “Why are we getting teachers from different states?”
In the race for District 7, which covers an area around Harahan, Doucet won 45.6 percent of the vote in the primary. Jacobs trailed by about 3 percentage points and 450 votes, and third-place finisher Jo Ann Scott took the remaining 12 percent.
Both Doucet and Jacobs are Republicans.
Since the primary, Scott, who based much of her campaign around her opposition to Common Core, has thrown her support behind Doucet, who also has spoken against the controversial educational standards.
Doucet, who is 56 and works for the city of Harahan, said the standards are untested and too complicated. “It hasn’t even been proven yet anywhere. It doesn’t have a proven track record,” she said.
Jacobs, the 43-year-old vice president of DKI Office Furniture and owner of the Abode home furnishing store, said the issue of standards is one for the state to decide and that debating them takes focus away from issues in the Jefferson school system. But he said the standards are part of ensuring accountability for the school system, and he noted that union groups originally were in favor of Common Core.
Jacobs said the race is essentially a test of the power of the teachers union and its national organization, the American Federation of Teachers. The national group poured $450,000 into the School Board races in the parish; although Doucet was not one of the candidates the AFT money supported, she has received funding from a variety of union groups.
Allowing the teachers union to have more influence over the School Board would be a step backward and could undo the progress the district has seen in recent years, as reflected by improved ratings from the state, Jacobs said.
“We had serious financial difficulties when we joined the board,” he said. The union “fought us every step of the way. They used their collective bargaining agreement to fight us on all our reforms.”
Jacobs touted actions taken while he was president of the board, including the decision not to renew the collective bargaining agreement with the union, the closing of failing schools and layoffs of staff deemed not essential.
Doucet said she doesn’t consider herself pro-union but rather pro-teacher, and she said it’s important for educators to feel they have representation on the board to ensure good outcomes.
She said the school system needs to reduce class sizes and focus on hiring local, certified teachers rather than those from Teach for America or relying on charter schools.
Jacobs said charters are important for allowing choice in the school system and that the reforms of the past four years have led to a more accountable and financially responsible school system.
The collective bargaining agreement with the union hurt the parish’s schools by tying the hands of administrators, Jacobs said. The agreement “interfered with the management of our school system academically and administratively,” he said.
On the other hand, Doucet said the board now is too one-sided. “There have to be checks and balances in every system, and right now the way it is, with the business community in total control, there’s no one there to question how things are done,” she said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.