Three candidates seeking to replace Barbara Freiberg on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board are offering different ways they would seek additional revenue to direct to the classroom.
Speaking Monday night to an audience of about 50 people at Lee High, Mike Gaudet, who was appointed to the District 7 seat in January, said improving low-performing schools is key to regaining the trust of residents: “We need to up our game.” He said this will be particularly true as the school system next April seeks renewal of a 1-cent sales tax devoted to education.
“We can no longer allow D and F schools in what we are doing,” Gaudet said.
Gaudet’s appointment is temporary. He faces two challengers in the Oct. 14 special election: Belinda Davis and Brian Adams. There will be a Nov. 18 runoff, if necessary. Early voting for the primary begins Saturday.
The election was sparked by Freiberg's election last December to Metro Council.
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District 7 stretches from LSU in the west to Kenilworth Parkway and Gardere Lane in the east. Its northern boundary mostly follows Perkins Road, though at one point it jogs north to take in part of the Garden District. It is bounded on the south by the Mississippi River.
Gaudet, a retired chemical engineer with Albermarle, also said the school system needs to find ways to save money in operations to get more money for the classroom. Gaudet, a Republican, said he sat on the negotiating team in renegotiating the school system’s school support work contract with Philadelphia-based Aramark, saving millions in the process.
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Davis, an associate professor in political science at LSU, emphasized her work experience evaluating the effectiveness of programs, and said she’d do the same if elected to the School Board.
“We need to be evaluating the programs that are currently available in East Baton Rouge Parish to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to. That’s my job,” said Davis, a Democrat.
Davis also said she’d lobby the Legislature for more help as she’s done in the past as president of the parent group One Community, One School District. She also said she push for a clawback provision in industrial tax exemptions so companies would return tax savings to the parish if they don’t create the jobs they promised. And she said the state-run Recovery School District owes the school system millions of dollars in legacy costs from when it took over control of eight public schools in Baton Rouge between 2008 and 2012.
Adams, director of district and school partnerships with Teach For America, expressed the most openness to floating a new tax to voters, if it is explained right.
“I don’t think that voters would object to an increase in taxes if they had a full understanding of what they were getting,” said Adams, a Democrat.
But before going there, he said, he’d first look closely at the school system’s budget.
“With a nearly billion dollar budget, are we adequately using the dollars that are there?” he asked.
Monday’s forum was organized by a two-year-old group called South Louisiana Coalition for Education, created by local educators.
The questions asked Tuesday ranged from how the candidates would erase funding inequities between schools, improve student transportation, and deal with student discipline.
Dadrius Lanus, a member of SLCE, said the questions were generated after members of the group interviewed about 100 people in Baton Rouge.
“The issues discussed tonight reflect the most common things we’ve heard in our conversations,” he said.
Davis gave a personal answer when the topic turned to student transportation. A mother of three children in public schools, which she emphasized several times, Davis said she’s had problems with busing.
“I was one of those parents who never received an assigned bus card, and my son’s assigned bus stop was two miles from his home,” she recalled.
She suggested better routing, including consulting with drivers on how the routes are set, as well as closing the district’s much disliked bus transfer point.
Gaudet said the best answer to transportation issues is creating more neighborhood schools that would obviate the need for lengthy bus routes.
Adams was the most full-throated supporter of school choice, including private schools.
“I want to be the candidate who moves it back to parents feeling they have a choice," he said.
Adams said, if elected, he would spend a lot of time speaking with principals to help him decide what needs to be done in East Baton Rouge Parish.
“I believe those at the source have the answer,” he said. “We just have to be willing to support them and back them with those policies.”