The competition for seats on the Jefferson Parish School Board has played out as a struggle between candidates backed by Jefferson business groups and those running with the support of the local teachers union, which has gotten a big financial assist from the American Federation of Teachers, its national counterpart.
Voters will decide Tuesday among candidates who are split over issues such as how closely to cooperate with the union and whether to close struggling schools or try to improve them. Four years of a business-backed majority on the board has crystallized competing schools of thought in Jefferson on how to improve education.
But in races on the West Bank of the parish, debate also goes beyond the typical flash points of the education debate — touching, for instance, on whether schools there get the same resources and attention as those on the other side of the river.
In all, eight candidates are running for three West Bank seats.
The race in District 2 pits political newcomers Rickeem Jackson, Ricky Johnson and April Williams against one another in a three-way race to represent a newly created majority-black district, the school system’s second. All three are Democrats.
Jackson runs the Rickey Jackson Community Hope Center, a nonprofit that provides services to at-risk youth. It was started by his father, a former Saints Hall of Fame linebacker.
Jackson did not respond to multiple requests to discuss his candidacy with The New Orleans Advocate. However, in a forum sponsored by the Alliance for Good Government, he stressed his work at the center as qualifying him for a seat on the School Board.
He has the backing of the business groups that support the current board majority.
Johnson, a 57-year old pastor and construction inspector, said his candidacy is focused on bringing more resources to West Bank schools, which he said have long been overlooked in favor of schools on the East Bank.
Particularly worrying to Johnson were the closures of several West Bank schools in recent years. While acknowledging those schools had issues, he said the district should have devoted more resources to improving the performance of their teachers and students.
Johnson is supported by the Jefferson Federation of Teachers and has benefited from campaign spending by the American Federation of Teachers. He said he supports a collective bargaining agreement between teachers and the school district.
While he said he is not completely opposed to charter schools, which are publicly funded but run by nonprofit boards, Johnson expressed skepticism about adding more schools in the parish and argued that charters tend to bring in teachers with fewer qualifications for less pay. The charter school that took over Woodmere Elementary School, for example, was forced on parents without giving them enough information or input, he said.
He also stressed that he is a graduate of the Jefferson school system and four of his children went to school in the parish, while Jackson attended school outside of the state.
“I think no school in Jefferson Parish should have anything more than any other school,” Johnson said. “What we do on the East Bank we should do on the West Bank.”
Williams, 54, retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs and is completing her doctorate in business administration.
She stresses the importance of providing students with the technology they will need for both standardized testing and future careers.
While she is a strong proponent of the Common Core curriculum, Williams said students and teachers are not being given the resources they need to work effectively within that system. That includes the computers needed to take the tests that are aligned with the curriculum.
Williams said money for better technology could come from selling old school buildings and dropping contracts with outside consultants.
She said she also supports reinstating the collective bargaining agreement between the school system and its teachers.
An important task for School Board members is working to get parents more involved in education, she said, noting that attendance at parent-teacher organization meetings is flagging.
“The biggest challenge is getting our parents involved in education,” Williams said. “If I can get those parents on board, no child would be left behind; no child would fall behind.”
The West Bank campaign that most clearly reflects the fight between the teachers union and the parish’s business groups is between longtime School Board member Ray St. Pierre and first-time candidate Ray Griffin. The two are running for the District 3 seat, which represents a slice of the West Bank running from Destrehan Avenue near the Mississippi River to the southwestern edge of the parish.
Griffin, a 27-year-old Republican and manager of a local marina, is backed by the business groups that succeeded in winning a slim majority of board seats in 2010.
He said the school system has made big strides in recent years and his candidacy is aimed at keeping the board on the same course.
A collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson Federation of Teachers is unnecessary, he said, though he said the board should be willing to listen to teachers.
At the same time, Griffin said, the district can do more than it has. He wants to see the district learn more from its best-performing schools in order to help those that are struggling, and he said schools should partner with local businesses so that students can get on-the-job training
“The school system has come too far to go backwards,” Griffin said. “We’re on the track to have an amazing school system, and we need to make sure we don’t fall back to the practices of years past.”
The 75-year-old St. Pierre, a retired Jefferson Parish teacher who has served as a School Board member for four terms, said the most important part of serving on the board is communicating with parents and other members of the public.
The union is important for giving teachers a voice, and collective bargaining ensures they aren’t unfairly dismissed, he said.
Given the trajectory of the past four years, he said, he is worried about teacher morale. He said he has heard from several teachers who say they plan on leaving the system.
St. Pierre, a Republican, said he is not opposed to all of the policy changes that have happened in the past few years and insists he is an independent voice.
For instance, he supports giving principals the authority to hire and fire teachers rather than having those decisions come from the district’s central office.
“I’m an issue-oriented board member, and I do what I think is the correct thing for us in the school system,” St. Pierre said. “I don’t vote on something because I’m coaxed to do something by four other members.”
The District 5 race features a rematch between former board member Karen Barnes and incumbent Cedric Floyd, plus a third candidate, Sharlayne Jackson-Prevost, who is running for the first time. All are Democrats.
Barnes and Floyd first squared off to represent the district — the school system’s first majority-black district — in 1998. Barnes won that race and served for two terms before deciding not to seek re-election. Two years later, Floyd — who had previously held the seat — won a special election to replace her successor, who died while in office.
Barnes, 52, has focused on Floyd’s contentious relationship with other board members, noting that he has been the lone dissenting vote on many occasions and alleging that few other board members will work with him. The board needs someone who is willing to cooperate with colleagues and district administrators in order to make progress, she said.
She said she wants to work on relieving overcrowded classrooms and stopping school closures. There also needs to be more of a focus on providing teachers and students with the resources necessary to succeed with the Common Core curriculum, she said.
The board needs more transparency, Barnes said, noting that when she was a member the budget was a thick book but now all that is publicly available is a seven-page summary.
She said she would work with the union and that it is important for the school district to invest in its workforce.
“Everything is not a fist fight. There has to be some give and take,” Barnes said.
Floyd, who has served on the School Board for a total of 14 years, said the current board majority has been moving the system in the wrong direction on a number of issues, including its treatment of teachers and the conversion of Woodmere Elementary into a charter school. Floyd cast the only vote against the Woodmere conversation earlier this year.
Floyd, who has the backing of the teachers union, also questions whether the board’s business-backed majority is actually responsible for recent improvements in exam results and other indicators.
With regard to his relationships with other board members, he said there is little difference on the board on most issues, and he defended his voting record.
“I vote in the direction of what’s in the best interest of the school system,” Floyd said. “We vote together 97 percent of the time. If I’m not voting with them, there’s a good chance they’re on the wrong side of the vote.”
Jackson-Prevost, who has the backing of Jefferson Parish business groups, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on her campaign.