Incumbent Vereta Lee and challenger Dadrius Lanus traded jabs at a forum Tuesday over who’s backing their campaigns and about their respective teaching experience during their first debate since they faced off a week ago at the polls. They are in the Dec. 8 runoff for the District 2 seat on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
By contrast, Gordon “Trey” Bargas and Terrica Williams, both of whom are running for Baton Rouge Constable to replace the retiring Reginald Brown, spent their time at Tuesday's forum talking about their biographies and refraining from criticizing each other. Bargas and Williams led a four-person field Nov. 6 to land in the Dec. 8 runoff.
The candidate forum was sponsored by the parish’s Republican Party and held at Café Americain restaurant. Bargas is the only Republican among the four candidates. Lanus, Lee and Williams are Democrats.
Seven of the nine members on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board will return to office in January for new terms, but Kenyetta Nelson-Smit…
In the Nov. 6 primary, Lanus led with 47 percent of the vote to Lee’s 32 percent, just 378 votes of shying of winning outright. Third candidate, La Belle Aire Elementary third-grade teacher Joycelyn Hall, forced the runoff when she received 21 percent of the vote, a strong showing given she reported raising only $55.
Lee announced Tuesday that Hall has since endorsed her for reelection to a fourth term representing the north Baton Rouge school district. Lanus, however, argued that as a schoolteacher Hall can’t endorse a sitting School Board member.
Reached later Tuesday, Hall acknowledged she decided to endorse Lee after speaking with her several times and getting to know more about her accomplishments.
Hall said she also spoke with Lanus about an endorsement but she said she told him “I didn’t feel he needed my support.” As to Lanus’ objection to her endorsement, she responded, “I have every right to endorse whoever I want to endorse.”
The District 2 campaign has been notable for the heavy spending of third-party education reform groups supporting Lanus. A campaign arm of the charter school friendly, New York City-based Democrats for Education Reform, which has an active Louisiana chapter, has reported spending more than $100,000 for Lanus, and plans to spend more to back his runoff campaign.
Lanus, who is 30, professed he is his own man: He said he is no way indebted to those supporting him, saying “no money can make a board member vote a certain way” and he “answers to the people in my community, not big business, not endorsements.”
Lee trumpeted her support from school employee unions and other supporters of traditional public schools. Lee, who is 60, also noted she is the “only certified teacher” in the races — a dig at Lanus, whose teaching career has been in charter schools, which are not required to hire certified teachers. Lee said she has spent 39 years in public education, most of that as a classroom teacher.
Lee’s own teaching past, however, is being used against her. On Tuesday, she objected to one attack, that she was once “fired” from the parish school system.
“They say I was terminated as a teacher,” she said. “Vereta was never terminated.”
In late 2002, Lee was suspended for five years after she was accused of helping a child cheat on a LEAP test when she was a teacher at North Highlands Elementary, which has since closed. Lee sued unsuccessfully to get her job back, a suit that was still ongoing when she first ran successfully for School Board in fall 2006.
Lee said Tuesday the real reason she was disciplined was because she spoke out against a decision by then-Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to close an extended-year program at North Highlands.
The constable debate was much less contentious.
Bargas, 47, who retired from the Baton Rouge Police Department in April after 20 years on the force, urged the audience to do careful research on the two candidates before voting Dec. 8.
“Call a friend, call a neighbor, so we can all make a good decision,” he said.
Bargas talked about how he wants to find ways to bring down the costs for the poor in Baton Rouge when they have to deal with City Court. For instance, he suggested those with fines and debts have the chance to work off what they owe.
“I feel like there is a problem with access to justice,” he said.
Terrica Williams, 46, highlighted her 15 years in law enforcement with the Sheriff's Office, the state Department of Corrections, and especially the Constable's Office.
“I am qualified," Williams said. "I can walk into the Constable's office today and run that office because of my experience."