After resisting widespread calls to resign, embattled East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Connie Bernard is facing a recall petition that seeks to force her out of office.

The four African American members of the board — Dawn Collins, Tramelle Howard, Dadrius Lanus and Evelyn Ware-Jackson — called Monday for Bernard to resign and gave her until noon Tuesday to do so. Noon came and went Tuesday with no new announcement from Bernard.

Four hours later, the recall petition was filed.

“Today we are going to hold solid around that promise,” Lanus said.

Lanus spoke Tuesday in front of the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office alongside Marcie Frazier, Maya Guntz and their attorney, Julie Udoessien. All were wearing face masks. Three of the masks said “#ByeConnie.”

Lanus has led the charge to force Bernard to resign and is serving as lead strategist on the recall. Frazier and Guntz, both residents of Bernard's District 8, have agreed to serve as chair and vice chair of the recall effort. Frazier is a teacher, and Guntz is a lawyer. Both are parents with children in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools.

They now have 180 days to collect more than 8,000 signatures from registered voters in the south Baton Rouge school district.

“I only ask that Ms. Bernard, you have the courage, the dignity and the wherewithal to do the right thing,” Lanus said, “because until she does this will remain a stain on our community and a distraction for our students and our schools.”

On Monday, Bernard issued a statement saying that while she regrets becoming a “distraction,” she plans to “continue to serve all students as elected by my district three times."

More than 100 people have already signed up to volunteer and “feet will be on the ground this week,” Lanus said. An organizing page on Facebook called “Bye Connie Movement for District 8” was created Monday and already had 200-plus followers Tuesday morning.

A successful recall petition would set up a future election where voters in District 8 would vote "for" or "against" recalling Bernard from office. If a majority approves the recall, then Bernard would be removed from office, setting the stage for a special election to fill the remainder of her term. Bernard could not run in that special election.

Bernard first came under fire after a June 10 local TV interview where she said anyone offended by the name Lee High should “learn a little more” about Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general the school is named after.

Criticism of her exploded after she was caught on camera Thursday night apparently shopping for dresses while the School Board was debating whether to rename the 61-year-old high school. Bernard apologized the next day for her June 10 comments, saying they were “insensitive” and she is “deeply sorry.” But she denied that she was shopping — it was a pop-up ad that she neglected to close; several witnesses disputed her contention.

Frazier, whose son attends Dufrocq Elementary, said Bernard’s comments about Robert E. Lee solidified her feelings that the board member has to go.

“That was a pearl-clutching moment for me,” Frazier said. “I was like, ‘My god, what is this woman doing?'”

Guntz, who has three children in public schools, said she already had a low bar for Bernard but the pictures of Bernard shopping during Thursday’s meeting were the final straw.

“We deserve better than someone who can’t even pretend on their job to do their job,” Guntz said.

In recent days, board members say they’ve been inundated with messages from around the world. An online petition calling for Bernard to resign, launched over the weekend, had topped 18,000 signatures by Tuesday night.

An on-the-ground protest in Baton Rouge is likely to occur Wednesday. A flyer began circulating late Tuesday calling for a 2 p.m. Wednesday “student, teacher & community led protest” demanding Bernard’s resignation.

Meanwhile, recall organizers have already been gathering names and plan a lot more walking and calling in the coming days.

“We’re going old school,” Guntz said. “We’re PTA phone-treeing. I called all the parents in my class. Those parents have parents in the next class.”

District 8 has more than 32,000 registered voters. Louisiana’s election recall law requires that the recall petition would need the signatures of at least 25% of the registered voters in District 8 — more than 8,000 people — for it to then result in a recall election. The 180-day deadline to gather those signatures will hit just before Christmas 2020.

Prior to 2018, the bar was even higher. At that time, the recall threshold for all elective office was one-third of registered voters. In 2018, the Legislature shifted to a sliding scale. The smallest offices, with fewer than 1,000 registered voters, need 40% of the registered voters to sign, while the largest one, with 100,000 or more registered voters, require just 20%.

For districts like Bernard's, with between 25,000 and 99,999 registered voters, the recall threshold is 25%. The lower threshold means recall organizers seeking to oust Bernard need about 2,700 fewer signatures than they would have needed two years ago.

Even so, the last successful recall was held in April 2016, when the Town of Washington in St. Landry Parish recalled Police Chief Ronnell “Bruce” Broussard, according data kept by the Secretary of State's Office.

Since 1966, there have been 117 recall elections that have made it on the ballot, of which 73 were successful. Of the rest, 30 failed, and 14 elections were not held or were disallowed for one reason or another.

Many more recall petitions are filed, but never make it onto the ballot.

“Just in my short time, I’ve seen a dozen that have been filed,” said Tyler Brey, press secretary for the Secretary of State, who joined the office in 2018.

While Lanus was the one who first called for a recall, he is not a resident of District 8 so can't lead it. State law requires that the chairman and vice chairman of the recall must themselves be registered voters in the district in question and they also need to supply proof of residency.

District 8 covers much of the southeastern part of East Baton Rouge Parish south of Interstate 10, starting in the west at Kenilworth subdivision and continuing east to the Ascension and Iberville parish lines. More than half of the district is situated in the newly approved City of St. George.

Bernard has represented District 8 since 2011. She was re-elected without opposition in 2018 to a third term, which ends Dec. 31, 2022. Term limits, however, bar her from running for a fourth consecutive term.

Despite Republicans having only a narrow plurality of 39% of registered voters, District 8 is historically a politically conservative district. In the last competitive school board race in 2014, all four candidates who qualified were Republican.

And about two-thirds of District 8 voters are White. There are, however, more than 10,500 non-White registered voters in the district.

Guntz said there are many like her in District 8 who are interested in the public schools and that politicians like Bernard can no longer bank on people’s apathy to keep them in office.

“We do care,” Guntz said. “You’re just about to find out how much.”


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com.