East Baton Rouge Parish voters ousted three members of their school board Tuesday night and two more were sent to a runoff.
The significant changing of the guard was partially fueled by an avalanche of outside campaign donations — more than $1.4 million and counting was spent on school board races as of the last reporting period.
Jill Dyason, Evelyn Ware-Jackson, and David Tatman all lost their seats Tuesday; Mike Gaudet and Connie Bernard were pushed into a runoff.
Incumbents Dadrius Lanus, of District 2, and Mark Bellue, of District 1, both kept their seats, though Bellue only defeated first-time candidate Kimberly Bainguel by 21 votes.
Incumbents Tramelle Howard and Dawn Collins did not seek another term, leaving their seats up for grabs.
In District 3, Howard's old seat, first-time candidate Carla Powell won election outright, handily defeating Jamie Robinson and Bernadette Thomas.
In the open District 4, formerly held by Collins, Shashonnie Steward led the voting, but fell short of 50%. She will face another first-time candidate for public office, Monique Wicks Robinson; a third candidate, Tebbe Jackson, trailed Steward and Robinson.
The results of the elections were not clear until about 1 a.m. because of a issue counting early voting ballots. The number of early ballots scanned did not match the number that election workers expected and clerks opted to run the numbers again.
Who was ousted, who went to runoff
Dyason lost the District 6 seat she has held for 21, losing handily to challenger and first-time candidate for public office, Nathan Rust.
Ware-Jackson went down to in District 5 to Cliff Lewis, a rematch of their 2018 race. Lewis, a parent liaison at a charter school in Baton Rouge is married to former Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis. Ware-Jackson was first elected to the board in 2010.
In District 9, incumbent David Tatman's 12-year tenure on the board — he was elected the same year as Ware-Jackson —will come to an end after he failed to make a runoff. Voters will choose between his two challengers: Patrick Martin V, who led the voting Tuesday, and Pamela Taylor Johnson, who retired in 2019 after 24 years as a juvenile court judge.
In the most surprising result of the night, District 8's Connie Bernard made it into a Dec. 10 runoff — even though she announced in September that she was ending her reelection campaign.
Bernard, the lone Republican in the race, will face Katie Kennison, the lone Democrat. Bernard led by only 98 votes over Kennison. Bernard has reported spending $3 since she called off her campaign while Kennison has reported spending $0.
Elbowed out of the runoff was Independent Joseph Britt, who spent more than $35,000 of money he raised. Another $41,000 and counting was spent on his behalf by outside interest groups.
Bernard has courted controversy throughout her 12-year tenure on the board. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after an August 2018 altercation with a teenager. In 2020, she was the target of a failed recall attempt after she shopped online during a controversial meeting at which the board voted to rename Lee High to Liberty High to remove any continued attachment to the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
In District 7, Cathy Carmichael led the field and will face incumbent Mike Gaudet, who joined the board in 2017, in a runoff. Gloria Wall, who had strong outside backing, came in third place.
Outside money pours in
All nine seats on the board were contested Tuesday. You have to go back to 1994 to find an election when so many School Board seats were in play; even then, one candidate was unopposed.
There were 243,713 registered voters eligible to vote in the nine races. They encompass the whole parish except Baker, Central and Zachary, which held their own school board elections Tuesday.
More than $1.4 million and counting has been spent so far this year on these nine East Baton Rouge Parish School Board races, with more than $800,000 still in their collective war chest. About 80% of the spending is coming not from the campaigns themselves, but from a handful of outside groups that are all loosely aligned in their support for charters.
Those groups are fueled by rich out-of-state donors. A couple of them are known, such as former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has contributed $150,000.
Most, however, are unknown, coming from entities that either don't disclose their donors or just disclose top donors.
The two biggest such groups are The City Fund, which has contributed $650,000 so far, and Stand For Children, which is close behind, spending about $648,000 so far.
The City Fund was formed in 2018 with large donations from a private foundation of Houston hedge fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura, as well as from the Hastings Fund, a philanthropic organization created by Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings.
Stand For Children, based in Portland, has had active parent chapters in Baton Rouge and New Orleans for years. In its 2021 annual report, it listed three big donors: a charity associated with Bloomberg; a charity formed by Connie and Steve Ballmer, the chief executive officer of Microsoft from 2000-14; and an arm of The City Fund.
The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is home to more than 40,600 children attending 84 schools. About 80% of its schoolchildren qualify for public assistance. In terms of race/ethnicity, 70% are Black, 13% are Hispanic, 10% are White and 4% are Asian.
Fourteen of the 84 schools are charter schools. They collectively enroll almost 7,000 children, or 17% of the students in the school district. Over the past four years, enrollment in the school system’s traditional schools has declined by about 10% while enrollment in its charter schools has nearly doubled.
Tuesday’s election is the first School Board election since the coronavirus pandemic began in spring 2020, shutting down schools for months and prompting widespread learning loss among children.