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-Smith won’t be one of them. She was narrowly defeated Tuesday when newcomer Tramelle Howard ousted her from the District 3 seat Nelson-Smith has held for the past eight years.
And voters in District 2 will return to the polls Dec. 8 for a runoff between incumbent Vereta Lee and challenger Dadrius Lanus. Lanus came close to winning outright Tuesday in the three-way race, giving him the upper hand in the runoff against Lee, who is seeking a fourth term on the board.
Both Lee and Nelson-Smith have long been targets of business and education reform groups that support charter schools.
Three of the returning incumbents — Mark Bellue, Connie Bernard and David Tatman — did not appear on Tuesday's ballot because they drew no opposition this year. For the next four years, they will again represent districts 1, 8 and 9.
In the six contested districts, incumbents Dawn Collins, Evelyn Ware-Jackson, Jill Dyason and Michael Gaudet all cruised to re-election Tuesday. They represent districts 4, 5, 6 and 7.
Howard’s win increases a 6-3 business-backed majority on the board to 7-2. A Lanus victory next month would make that an 8-1 margin.
Howard and Lanus have both received more than $100,000 in support so far from outside groups, according to campaign finance reports. At the same time, they have reported direct contributions of only $16,661 and $6,195, respectively. Outside spending in these races amounts to five times what Lee reported raising and 10 times what Nelson-Smith raised.
A charter-school friendly group based in New York City is spending nearly twice as much as all the candidates combined who are seeking a seat …
The incoming School Board, like the current one, will have five white Republicans and four black Democrats.
After results were final late Tuesday, Howard took to Facebook: “Tonight I became the youngest African American male ever elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board! Tonight my community said NO to established politics, no to business as usual, no to the status Quo, and YES to a young brother from the Heart of Scotland! Words can’t explain it!”
The last African-American man to serve on the board was Tarvald Smith, who left in late 2015 after he was elected Baton Rouge City Court judge. Howard, 28, often speaks about the need for men like himself to serve on the board because black and brown boys are often the school system's most struggling demographic.
Howard, who works as impact manager for the nonprofit group City Year, ended up winning by a 52-48 margin. He outpaced Nelson-Smith by just 452 votes. Both are Democrats. Turnout was 37.5 percent, the lowest of the six parish School Board races.
"I told folks from the beginning, 'If I can't win being Tramelle, then I don’t want to run for office, I don’t want to hold office,'" Howard said. "I was able to stay true to who I am."
Nelson-Smith, 38, was seeking a third term in office. An associate specialist of community and economic development at the Southern University AgCenter, Nelson-Smith was promoted as School Board vice president in September after fellow board member Connie Bernard gave up the position.
Nelson-Smith said the outside spending was overwhelming. She said she received eight mailers at her house attacking her and boosting her opponent.
“We fought a good fight, and we lost to public education reform," Nelson-Smith said.
Howard said he had no role in creating the mailers, but he said the ones he saw were not personal but accurately portray Nelson-Smith's record. "I would not have stood for any personal attacks," he said.
In the District 2 race, Lanus led Tuesday with 47 percent of the vote to Lee's 32 percent, just 378 votes short of winning outright. Teacher Joycelyn Hall, the third-place finisher, won 21 percent, or 2,439 votes, a respectable result given that she reported raising only $55. All three are Democrats.
Lee’s showing Tuesday was almost 4,000 votes fewer than in 2014 when she was reelected with 66 percent of the vote.
Like Howard, Lanus has spent the past recent years in the classroom, but he's currently working as an education consultant.
Nelson-Smith’s loss, and the possibility of Lee following her out the door, was quickly celebrated by groups supporting Howard and Lanus.
Caroline Roemer, executive director of the group Louisiana Charter Schools In Action, said board members like Lee and Nelson-Smith have “worked against reform,” and “have been hostile towards charter schools.” Roemer said she hopes the new blood will help the board “to drive change on behalf of students and ensure millions of taxpayer dollars are better spent across the school district.”
Stand for Children once again looks to be a big player in races for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Eva Kemp, director of the Louisiana chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, credited Howard for a “hard-fought and well-deserved victory” and said the education group will continue to support Lanus in the runoff “against a toxic incumbent.”
“I’m confident that this new board will direct Baton Rouge toward a new vision of success focused on excellence, equity, and accountability, while working to regularly engage with school leaders, families, parents and other stakeholders,” Kemp said.
Democrats for Education Reform and affiliated groups supported both Lanus and Howard, while the Louisiana chapter of the group Stand for Children did not support Lanus.
Carrie Griffin Monica, Stand’s executive director in Louisiana, said her organization is hopeful the incoming School Board will "address the declining graduation rates, inequitable access to quality schools for all children, and hold those charged with supporting our children accountable."
Candidates for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board have reported raising nearly $160,000 collectively, though two of the most successful fund…