Residents on Jefferson Parish’s East Bank will essentially be presented with a referendum on the parish School Board as they go to the polls on Nov. 4.
The five East Bank races are primary battlegrounds in an electoral fight between board members backed by business groups — including the Jefferson Chamber and Jefferson Business Council — who took a slim majority of seats on the board in 2010, and candidates supported by the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, the union that represents educators in the parish.
Nearly all the candidates are Republicans, hardly a surprise in an area dominated by the GOP, but each district features a competition between candidates backed by the competing interest groups.
In District 4, which covers the eastern edge of the East Bank, political newcomers Melinda Bourgeois and Glenn Mayeaux are facing off to replace Pat Tovrea, a business-backed board member who is not seeking re-election.
Bourgeois, 50, the owner of Travel Central, said she supports the changes the business-backed majority has made and would continue them if elected.
Bourgeois, a Republican, said improvements in the school system have helped make Jefferson more attractive to business owners thinking of relocating to the parish.
She attributed improved academic performance to policies that give principals more control over which teachers to hire and that prioritize effectiveness over seniority for teachers. A collective bargaining agreement would get in the way of those policies, she said.
Challenges going forward, she said, include how to properly evaluate educators who are teaching high-performing students who already are in the top percentiles, as well as providing resources for educators whose classes include large numbers of students for whom English is a second language, a growing issue in the district.
Key to the success of the current board is its approach of setting expectations and holding officials accountable for reaching those goals without micro-managing the district and getting involved in principal selection and teacher movement, Bourgeois said.
Mayeaux, who has been a teacher in the school system for 38 years, said the board is at odds with both parents and educators and the district needs to improve its relationship with both groups in order to have a successful academic environment.
Mayeaux, a 65-year-old Republican, downplayed the importance of the current board and its policies in achieving improvements in the district’s scores, noting that the district was on an upswing before the current members took office. Further, he said, the district’s improvements in state rankings are not as impressive as they sound because the state Department of Education changed the rating system this year in a way that bumped up the district’s score.
He said teachers and the union have successfully sued the School Board several times for violating teachers’ rights in their handling of layoffs and other issues, showing what he said is the need for a collective bargaining agreement to ensure the rights of teachers.
Mayeaux said the district has tried in recent years to minimize the punishments teachers can impose on students, but that leads to a chaotic environment in the classroom and danger for both students and teachers. He accused the district of implementing those policies because disciplinary actions count against the schools when they are rated by the state.
“The school system now is more interested in their score than they are in the child,” Mayeaux said. “They have to put their priorities in perspective.”
In perhaps the clearest example of the conflict between the current board and the union, the District 6 race pits former board President Larry Dale against union President Meladie Munch for a seat that represents the central area of the parish.
Dale, 62, a consultant for an employment firm, cites improvements in the school district’s financial stability and academic performance, noting that the district went from having 70 percent of its schools ranked D or F to a situation where 75 percent are rated A, B or C. Continuing the current board’s policies is crucial to continuing that performance, he said.
Those improvements came largely from the leadership of Superintendent James Meza, who is retiring at the end of the year, and from policies aimed at attracting high-performing teachers, said Dale, a Republican.
Increasing the number of educators who can teach students who don’t speak English at home and increasing the salaries for teachers in the district will be among the challenges facing the district going forward, he said.
Dale said he was originally open to a collective bargaining agreement but now believes that it interferes with the ability of principals to run their schools. Teachers should have a voice in how the system is run, he said, but not necessarily through a union or a collective contract, though he said he supports the individual contracts teachers now have with the system.
Munch, a 60-year-old Democrat, has focused her campaign on improving prekindergarten programs, ensuring that teachers have the resources they need and improving the board and administration’s relationship with teachers.
Providing pre-K programs is crucial to improving outcomes for students later in their academic careers, Munch said. It’s also necessary to reinstate classes such as art and music that have been cut and to provide options for students who are not considering college so they can learn skills necessary to enter the workforce, she said.
Munch said the current board does not take comments from teachers or parents into account — an attitude that she said has to change to be a successful system. She also said a collective bargaining agreement is necessary to protect teachers and ensure there are clear policies on performance and other issues.
Good teachers are leaving the system because they lack job security and feel they don’t have the support of the administration or board, Munch said. They are being replaced with teachers who have less experience with both academics and dealing with students, she said.
Munch also questioned the state ratings the board uses to support its current direction, saying it has used techniques such as closing low-performing schools and failing to discipline students to improve its standing in the rankings without actually achieving better outcomes.
“To me, it’s a game that’s played, a strategy to make it appear that things are better,” she said. “Things are a little bit better, but we’re not seeing the growth that we once saw.”
In District 7, which covers the area around Harahan and River Ridge, incumbent Mark Jacobs faces challenges from educator Jo Ann Scott and Melinda Doucet, a clerk for the city of Harahan. Jacobs is part of the business-backed majority on the board, while Doucet has the endorsement of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers.
Doucet, a 56-year-old Republican, said she has had children in Jefferson Parish schools for 19 years, has held leadership roles in parent-teacher organizations and has seen the relationship between board members and parents erode in recent years.
A major part of that is the difficulty she said parents now face getting in touch with their board members. The lack of engagement with parents means families are no longer as involved in the schools as they once were, she said.
That’s been compounded by issues between the board and teachers and a lack of resources that has led to low morale among educators, Doucet said. A collective bargaining agreement wouldn’t be necessary if teachers were treated with respect by the board, she said.
Like other challengers, Doucet calls into question the statistics showing improvement in the district.
She also said the district should be focused more on providing resources to students for whom English is a second language.
“If this was a business and you treated your customers this way, you would be out of business. You have to look at the teachers and parents as customers,” she said.
Jacobs, a 43-year-old Republican business owner, said the results the district has seen under the board are measurable and are borne out by the state ratings. Those changes have led to increased enrollment as parents decide to send their children to public schools rather than opting for private schools, he said.
Key to that development, he said, has been giving principals more power to chose the teachers in their schools, replacing a system based on seniority or friendships with an approach that focuses on seeking the best educators because the schools are being held accountable for the results.
Jacobs said the former collective bargaining agreement tied the hands of the school district in terms of which teachers it retained, which in turn hurt the children in the district.
Jacobs said he supports Common Core, arguing the new standards allow the district to compare its performance to others around the country and provide a higher bar for achievement.
The next focus for the school system should be improving programs that prepare students for college and providing more resources for students in special education classes, he said. The district also needs to work on updating or replacing outdated buildings, he said.
Jacobs defended the changes of the last four years. “The kids are learning more and are in a better position, and that’s our goal and that’s what public education is about,” he said.
Scott, a Libertarian who has been an educator for 34 years, has focused much of her campaign on opposition to Common Core. The standards encourage kids to cram for tests but not actually retain what they are studying, said Scott, 63. They also eliminate creativity and individualization within the system, which she said could put the country on the path to becoming a socialist state.
Common Core also puts increased stress on teachers, who haven’t been prepared for the new standards, and on parents, who have not been taught how to help their children with their homework, she said.
The School Board also has not engaged enough with parents, and members should spend more time in the schools and be more available to parents, Scott said. She also criticized the board for publishing only a seven-page budget that does not include line-item expenditures.
Scott said she opposes policies that are now part of state law that essentially eliminate teacher tenure and create a voucher program for Louisiana schools. Eliminating tenure and reducing the power of the teachers union create a situation where teachers have little job security and are at the mercy of their students’ performance, she said.
Scott said her experience as a teacher would help provide insight to the board.
“I’ve been in the trenches with the teachers, know about these programs they just push on you,” she said.
In District 8, which covers much of the lakefront area, former educator Marion “Coach” Bonura is seeking to oust Michael Delesdernier, a lawyer who was elected to the board in 2010 with the support of business groups.
Bonura, a 68-year-old Republican, said it is crucial to have educators on the board. The district needs to pay more attention to middle school students because those schools are falling behind, he said. The main problems for middle schools in the district are overcrowding and a lack of discipline as well as a lack of resources for teachers, he said.
The district also suffers from a lack of teaching assistants who can aid students who are not native English speakers, he said. Those assistants are spread thin and may have to stop translating in the middle of one class to go assist with another, he said.
Overall, the board’s attitude has led to low morale among teachers, Bonura said.
The current board has done little to improve outcomes in the schools, he said, arguing that the only major policy it changed was getting rid of the union’s collective bargaining agreement. He said he supports such an agreement, which gives teachers a voice. He also criticized Delesdernier, who he said has acted like a bully toward parents and teachers. “I know what it takes to bring people together, not split them up like they’ve been split up over the last four years,” he said.
Delesdernier, a 54-year-old Republican, said the changes made by the current board have had a dramatic impact on the school system and that continuing those policies is a moral imperative for those who care about students in Jefferson Parish.
Delesdernier has been sharply critical of the union, which he said has sowed disunity in the district, in contrast to what he described as the board’s policy of putting kids first in its decisions. The union has been a distraction from the district’s core mission of educating students, he said, and eliminating the collective bargaining agreement and weakening the union have been key to the district’s success. He also said the union has done little to improve the effectiveness of teachers.
Delesdernier pointed to improvements in the district, noting that even if challengers have raised questions about the rating the school district has received from the state, it still went from the 52nd best district in the state in 2010 to the 36th best last year. He also pointed to reductions in the district’s central office staff that he said made the district more efficient and helped improve the stability of its finances.
Asked about Bonura’s criticism of his attitude, Delesdernier argued that the poor state of parish schools when he was elected meant board members could not be patient and hope that improvements would come. “I’m not apologizing for that. I can’t stand by and watch children suffer,” he said.
The race in District 9, which covers the Kenner area, pits incumbent Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge against former board member Gene Katsanis in a rematch of their 2010 race.
Denapolis-Bosarge, a 55-year-old registered nurse who retired due to disability, is a member of the business-backed majority on the board. She attributed the bulk of the system’s improvements to Meza’s leadership and said the most important task now is picking a new superintendent.
Key to the recent success was giving greater authority to principals and reducing inefficiencies in the central office, she said. Those changes allowed the system to respond more effectively to the needs of each individual school, she said.
Meza’s hand-picked successor, Deputy Superintendent Michelle Blouin-Williams, is the board’s likely choice to take over the top job, and Denapolis-Bosarge said she would be comfortable with that selection, though she would want to do a search to make sure Blouin-Williams was the best candidate.
Denapolis-Bosarge said she supports the individual contracts teachers now have with the system over the previous collective bargaining agreement. For a new global agreement to be considered, she said, it would have to allow for teachers to be evaluated and held accountable for their performance.
“I think we’ve got to continue the reforms and continue the board’s support of whoever the new superintendent is going to be,” she said.
Katsanis, a 63-year-old who works in public relations, has called for more transparency in the School Board’s budgeting. He has compared the current budget provided to the public, which is just a few pages long, to the massive budget books that used to outline each line item the school district was spending money on.
He also has raised concerns that the district has drawn down a reserve fund that he said typically was used to avoid having to borrow money from the state.
Katsanis said enforcing discipline in the schools, which he said has been lax because it hurts the state’s rating of the Jefferson system, is also important.
He also criticized the district, which he said had been one of the most technologically advanced systems in the country in 2010, for needing to scramble to get computer equipment in recent years.
Katsanis also argued for pre-kindergarten programs and said he believes the board is spinning the performance of the school system to look good rather than to accurately reflect how well the schools are teaching students.
“I would be transparent in the budget. I would tell the truth about where we were academically, whether it’s bad or good,” he said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.