Two familiar faces are competing for the District 4 seat on the Lafayette Parish School Board.

Incumbent Tehmi Chassion and Erica Williams are vying for the same seat they competed for in 2014, when Chassion won with 57 percent of the vote. If elected again, he will be term limited.

District 4 includes J.W. Faulk Elementary, Dr. Raphael A. Baranco Elementary, Paul Breaux Middle, Northside High, David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy, LeRosen Preparatory School and the W.D. and Mary Baker Smith Career Center.

The last time the two faced off in an election, it ended contentiously.

Chassion filed a complaint with the 15th Judicial District Court after the election claiming Williams did not live in the district. She said that was a false characterization and that she was establishing residency in line with post-reapportionment election rules.

District Attorney Keith Stutes declined to press charges.

Williams said she’s happy in hindsight that she lost the last election. The mother of three moved from Georgia to Lafayette, her husband’s hometown, in 2011, and to many was still an outsider when she ran in 2014. She didn’t have the established relationships she does now, she said.

“I think I am much better prepared now than I was five years ago. I think it was critical that I lost,” she said.

Williams has since started a youth empowerment non-profit, New Vision Leadership, that exposes underserved middle school and high school students to career and educational opportunities and promotes civic engagement through trips and other programs.

She currently serves on the Lafayette Charter Foundation board for the two Renaissance charter academy campuses in Lafayette and has been involved on boards for local education groups and the city-parish government, Williams said.

Williams said she’s gained governance experience, deeper insight into Lafayette’s education system and greater appreciation for teachers and classroom needs. She said this growth, combined with her experience as a substitute teacher, college instructor and juvenile probation officer, gives her a diverse perspective that’s needed on the board.

Williams said her top focus is student achievement and ensuring all students are performing on grade level. While the District 4 schools’ progress has been touted, she said the number of students testing on grade level is still abysmal and more needs to be done.

“That’s where I’m laser focused,” she said.

Stemming from that, Williams said she’s interested in early childhood education, truancy and discipline, and trauma-informed teaching practices.

For early childhood education, she said she’d like to establish a database to track students’ education history before they reach kindergarten, so teachers and schools can best prepare students.

Voters get to hear from school board candidates at One Acadiana forum

Regarding discipline and truancy, Williams said it’s important there are more interventions to keep children in school. She also said there needs to be more administrative support behind teachers’ disciplinary decisions and consistent application of existing disciplinary policy.

Finally, Williams said she’d like to implement trauma-informed practices in District 4 classrooms and have expanded access to mental health care for students. She said that could include increasing the number of mental health professionals in schools, partnering with outside clinics for referrals or offering telemedicine options. 

The candidate said she’s passionate about education because it provided her direction and opportunity despite coming from an impoverished background. Williams said she wants to ensure that same opportunity for others.

“We have to be very intentional about solving these issues and getting down to the business of education, but we have to clear some of those barriers,” she said.

Despite Williams’ increased connections in the community, Chassion said he’s confident he can earn a third term on the board.

Chassion said the schools in District 4 are at a turning point and he wants to guarantee they don’t backslide. He said the schools’ improved state letter grade scores are worth celebrating, but there’s still hard work ahead to improve overall student performance.

Students can achieve grade level scores if the school system maintains its focus on improving its persistently low-performing schools with strong curricula and additional supports, Chassion said. He said he's learned during his two terms on the board that change takes time.

“I was absolutely positive things were easy to fix and you could do it immediately. I didn’t realize to have something built meant you had to go through 10 different steps to get it done. I figured out there’s a lot of red tape but there’s red tape for a purpose,” he said.

Chassion said he’s met with administrators to question their needs, educated his fellow board members about the schools’ situations and fought to fund the schools’ priorities, whether for additional staff or extra learning materials.

The incumbent said one key to continued progress is selecting a strong superintendent with vision to lead the school system. The superintendent is the school board’s only employee and all other hiring decisions stem from that individual, so hiring the right person to bolster progress in District 4 is critical, he said.

Chassion said he’s also concerned about teacher recruitment and retention. The schools in District 4 have suffered from high teacher turnover; teachers need to be better paid and incentivized to stay in the schools because consistency guarantees better educational outcomes over time, he said.

Better incentivization would also help prevent understaffing, which has left administrators “clamoring” to fill teacher gaps midyear, Chassion said.

Finally, Chassion said, he’s concerned about ensuring each child’s needs are met. Individual student success is as important as whole school progress, and school score gains aren’t meaningful if students are getting lost in the cracks, he said. Excelling students need to be pushed and struggling students need to be remediated to achieve grade level performance.

Aside from his board experience, the incumbent said his greatest strength is his passion for the community and how much he cares for the children and their advancement.

Chassion, who lives about a block from J.W. Faulk Elementary, said his neighbors frequently joke about seeing him log long hours in “his office” as he paces the block answering concerned calls from parents, teachers and other constituents.

“There are folks that just need help, and it’s making sure you’re there for them,” he said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com