Four East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members are calling for colleague Connie Bernard to resign from the board after recent comments she made defending Robert E. Lee as well as her apparently shopping online Thursday night as the board was debating whether to rename Lee High School, which is named after the Confederate general.
Bernard, however, announced Monday she has no plans to leave.
"I regret that I have become a distraction to the important work we have to do to educate our children," Bernard said. "After prayerful consideration and consultation with my family and friends, I will continue to serve all students as elected by my district three times."
The four African American board members — Dawn Collins, Tramelle Howard, Dadrius Lanus and Evelyn Ware-Jackson — held a press conference Monday at 4 p.m. in front of the School Board Office to formally call for Bernard to resign from her District 8 seat on the board.
Howard, who serves as board vice president, said that Bernard has failed to live up the duties and obligations of a School Board member and needs to leave.
“There is no place for gross misconduct on our board, in our school system and in our community,” Howard said.
Lanus, who wore a black sweatshirt emblazoned in white with “#ByeConnie,” said he will give Bernard until noon Tuesday to change her mind. If she doesn't, he said he will seek to recall her from office. But before a recall election can be called, Louisiana requires at least one-fourth of the registered voters in Bernard’s southeast Baton Rouge District 8 — that's more than 8,000 people — would have to sign a recall petition.
Lanus said “people from all over the nation” have already volunteered to help
“We are going to talk to every parent, every concerned citizen,” Lanus said. “This will never take place again in this community. It was uncalled for, it is unfortunate and it should never happen again.”
An online petition calling for Bernard to resign, launched over the weekend, had more than 15,000 signatures by Monday night. Also Monday afternoon, the pro-charter school parent group, Stand For Children Louisiana, joined the calls for Bernard to resign.
Howard said he invited the white board members to participate in the press conference, but they chose not to come. Ware-Jackson added that the press conference came together only around noon Monday and speculated that one or more board members were consequently unable to make it.
School Board President Mike Gaudet was not present, but he issued a statement Monday that Bernard showed "disinterest and apathy" and that her behavior consequently was "insensitive and disrespectful." Gaudet, however, stopped short of calling for her resignation.
Gaudet also released a proposed resolution, to be voted on July 16, calling upon the school district to take a series of steps to show that it is serious in its "commitment to equity and eradicating racism." The resolution, however, does not mention Bernard.
Ware-Jackson said she likes Gaudet’s resolution, but it will come too late.
“I just personally feel we can’t wait that long to make a statement, to defend our board,” she said. “Even if the entire board can’t be here, we feel responsible for the business of the board moving forward and to have this taken off our plate so we can get back to work.”
Lanus first called for Bernard to resign on Saturday morning, the day after Bernard apologized for June 10 remarks about General Lee. Bernard, however, claimed she was not shopping Thursday night, which is disputed by several observers.
“Ma’am this apology is UNACCEPTABLE! You had every single opportunity to apologize after you embarrassed our School Board on the news by openly supporting the legacy of Robert E. Lee but you did not!” Lanus wrote on Facebook.
Howard joined him soon afterwards. He said he’d been flooded with emails for people calling for Bernard’s resignation.
“Let the record reflect, I stand in solidarity with you! The actions taken by my colleague are inexcusable," Howard wrote. The half apology does not represent a sincere understanding of the years of hurt and pain presented on Thursday by the members of this community! Every action requires a consequence!”
Board member Ware-Jackson also went public Sunday night calling for Bernard’s resignation. Ware-Jackson said Bernard should have stepped down after a profanity-filled confrontation with a young partysgoers next door in August 2018, a confrontation caught on video. Bernard has pled not guilty to misdemeanor charges of simple battery, and entering and remaining after being forbidden. Those charges are still pending before State District Judge Ron Johnson.
“It was purely party loyalty that shielded (Bernard) then and the same that would say nothing now and hope that this would go away,” Ware-Jackson wrote. “It will not. It takes a lot of door to door signatures and costly mailers from her constituents for a recall. Hopefully that board member will do the right thing and relieve us all of this pain. If not, we need people from District 8 to come forward and demand better representation.”
In 2018, Collins and Ware-Jackson called for Bernard to resign for her behavior then, in part because they felt that someone with their skin color would have suffered much harsher treatment by authorities. Howard and Lanus, then running for the School Board, also called for Bernard to resign.
“We were public and we were clear,” said Collins. “We were constantly asked by our community members about removing Ms. Bernard.”
Bernard did give up her seat as vice president of the board, but refused to resign entirely. The board is not allowed to remove one of its own members.
“We got a lot of heat for the actions (of Bernard), but there was nothing we could do as a board,” Ware-Jackson said.
Bernard also benefited from timing. Bernard, who took office in 2011, had just been re-elected to a third term because no one qualified to run against her. Her third term ends Dec. 31, 2022. Thanks to term limits she won’t be able to run for a fourth consecutive term.
Ware-Jackson said this time the support for removing Bernard is much greater, saying that all nine board members are being inundated with emails from all over the world.
“Everybody can feel the pain as much as I can,” she said.
Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct the percentage of registered voters Louisiana requires for a successful recall petition. The correct percent for Connie Bernard's East Baton Rouge Parish School Board District 8 is 25 percent, not 33 percent. The Advocate regrets the error.