St. Tammany Parish’s rapid growth is most pronounced on its western side, where new subdivisions, shopping centers and restaurants have turned the rural area around once-sleepy Madisonville into a bustling suburban center.
That growth — praised by developers, public officials and residents who want the amenities — has also caused growing pains, especially at the schools that serve that part of the parish.
In the past three years, Madisonville Elementary School has grown from 444 to 758 students (including one additional grade) and Lancaster Elementary has gone from 601 to 724. Madisonville Junior High dropped from 697 to 642 students over the same period, but the overall enrollment in the three schools increased by nearly 400 students from the 2011-12 school year to 2013-14.
That’s why, when the School Board needed to redistrict after the most recent census, it was the Madisonville area that got a new district at the expense of one near Slidell.
Two candidates — Republican Sharon Lo Drucker and no-party candidate Shane Hodgson — are vying to be the first to represent the new district. Not surprisingly, the area’s rapid growth is at the top of their agenda.
“The population growth is explosive here over the last 25 years,” said Hodgson, who has a daughter at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and a son at Madisonville Junior High. “I feel certain we are going to need a high school.”
Currently, students who attend Madisonville Junior High must go to either Covington High or Mandeville High when they enter the ninth grade.
Hodgson said questions about a new school or what to do about the crowded schools are what he hears most on the campaign trail.
“I want to make sure the School Board is aware,” he said. The Madisonville area hasn’t had its own School Board representative since 1990, and getting one is a first step to addressing the rapid growth, he added.
“When my daughter started in 2005, I think we had maybe eight kindergarten teachers,” he said. But when his son started a couple of years later, “we were up to 11 or 13.”
Drucker, whose daughter attends Madisonville Junior High, agreed.
“It’s kind of tight,” she said of space in the schools.
“We need to take a look at projections on true population growth,” she said, “but more than likely we will need a high school here. We are just flourishing.”
Both candidates said the school system should study whether to build a high school for Madisonville and how it would be funded.
Another issue in the race is the Common Core state standards — a set of academic standards adopted by the state several years ago and fully implemented this year. St. Tammany Parish has been roiling with anti-Common Core sentiment, and angry parents have at times packed School Board meetings to beg or harangue the board into dropping Common Core altogether. More recently, a number of teachers asked the board not to drop the Common Core-aligned Eureka Math curriculum, saying it was helping them get good results, especially from elementary school students.
Drucker and Hodgson botspeak in a measured way on the topic, criticizing the implementation of the new standards and curriculum while rejecting some of the more extreme claims of Common Core opponents.
“I come from corporate management,” Drucker said. “You always get your frontline managers involved” in any new strategy. With Common Core, teachers — who she said are the school system’s frontline managers — were not involved enough in its implementation, she said.
“Teachers are the ones who see the results and how they interact,” she added.
Drucker said a recent move by School Board member Roanne Tipton to create small groups of School Board members, teachers and principals to discuss Common Core was a step in the right direction. “I don’t know why they didn’t do that in the first place,” she said.
Drucker praised the stated goals of Common Core. “What I like is critical thinking. Routine is easy,” she said.
Hodgson offered a similar evaluation.
“I am all for higher standards,” he said, but the move to a new curriculum to meet the Common Core standards was “a mess.”
Hodgson vowed to listen to teachers on the issue, saying he is not a “curriculum expert.”
Because St. Tammany is, by state standards, a high-performing district — it received an A rating in district scores released Tuesday — neither candidate comes into the race with a major reform agenda. Instead, both said they want to work with fellow board members and administrators to help make the system even better.
“Our competition is not going to be Virginia. It’s going to be somebody in China, France, Germany,” Drucker said. The school system must focus on keeping the students achieving a high levels, she said.
Hodgson agreed. “We have a great system, but we can always do better,” he said.
The race is the only remaining contested seat on the St. Tammany School Board. Another open board seat — District 6, a Mandeville-area seat — was won by Michael Nation this week when his opponent, Mike Rivault, dropped out after learning that, as a full-time state employee, he cannot hold local office.
A third seat was opened up with the death of Ray Alfred last month, but it is being filled on an interim basis by his father, Anthony Alfred, until a special election can be held in the spring.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.