Zachary School Board candidates keeping an eye on the budget _lowres

Heidi Vessel

Heidi M. Vessel won a full term on the Zachary Community School Board in Saturday’s runoff election after serving almost three months as an appointed member.

Vessel, a lawyer and the mother of two children attending Zachary schools, edged Elicia “Lisa” Lathon for the board’s District 6 seat, 418 to 396, according to unofficial election returns.

District 6 is an area in a north-central part of Zachary, north of Main Street and Main’s Church Street extension. The area had been represented by Jannie Rogers, but Vessel was appointed as her replacement in September when Rogers moved out of the district.

Vessel said she ran a grass-roots campaign without any organized committee supporting her.

“I knocked on more than 400 doors,” she said, adding that her 4- and 5-year-old daughters often accompanied her.

Although only 22 votes separated her from Vessel, Lathon said after the election that she had not given a thought to asking for a recount of Saturday’s vote but would “trust the democratic process.”

“It was a good experience. I learned a lot and met a lot of people,” said Lathon, a veteran educator who is a supervisor of student teaching at LSU.

Only six of the nine members who began their four-year terms in January 2011 remain on the board, and three of them will not return to their seats next month.

District 8 member Donnie Dykes moved and was replaced by Dawn Avants in January, while District 7 member Carl Kelley moved out of state and was replaced by Boyce Smith. Smith also moved from Zachary and was replaced by former member Beth Kimmel in August.

In addition to Vessel and Kimmel, the members re-elected this fall are Gaynell Young, Hubie Owen and David Dayton.

Young is the only member of the district’s original elected board who is still in office.

Incumbent Scott Swilley did not seek re-election, and Gwen Fuselier won his District 2 seat. Marty Hughes and Donna Grice defeated incumbents Sharon Samuel and Kenneth R. Mackie, respectively, in Districts 3 and 4.

Avants also lost her Nov. 4 race to Ann Watkins in District 4.

“As an educational model, Zachary’s got it. It works well,” Vessel said.

The board members who take office in January will face a major challenge in keeping Zachary’s school system as a financially viable model, she said. School officials and the community will have to perform a balancing act to keep Zachary as the top-rated school district in Louisiana without becoming a financial burden on the community, she said.