This year’s elections for Louisiana’s top school board are shaping up as the most-heated in years.
Eight of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 11 seats are up for grabs in the Oct. 22 primary.
Three other seats are chosen by the governor.
Of the elected slots, at least six could be major battles, including two in the Baton Rouge area.
BESE sets policies for an estimated 668,000 students statewide.
The panel has a major say in virtually every public school issue.
Some of the people on the board, and others who want to join it, contend that Louisiana public schools still need sweeping changes to improve student performance.
Others contend that things have gone too far, and that the drive for things such as state takeovers of failing schools, letter grades for public schools and teacher evaluations linked to student achievement need to be slowed or reversed.
What makes this year unusual?
First, Gov. Bobby Jindal is expected to get involved in some of the contests, even as he campaigns for a second term.
BESE often votes 6-5 for initiatives that the governor supports.
Jindal wants more allies on the board, and he also needs eight votes to get his pick for the next state superintendent of education.
Second, Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby is expected to soon announce the formation of a political action committee to promote some BESE candidates.
“He is going to be very involved,” said Brigitte Nieland, a vice president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Third, a newly formed coalition of teacher unions, school board members and superintendents is expected to get behind its own contenders.
Leaders of the group, called the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, have criticized Jindal administration public school policies, including the governor’s influence over BESE.
“We would rather have some people that have had some education experience and know what it takes to be in the classroom,” said Jack Loup, founder of the group and president of the St. Tammany Parish school board.
Critics of the coalition say the group is merely anti-reform.
Several of this year’s BESE races will reflect similar splits.
One is in District 6, where incumbent Chas Roemer, of Baton Rouge, faces a challenge from former Ascension Parish Superintendent Donald Songy, who may be backed by the coalition.
Elizabeth Meyers, a recently retired teacher from Denham Springs, is also running.
In District 8, Domoine Rutledge, a veteran attorney with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, hopes to succeed Linda Johnson, who is not seeking re-election.
Others are expected in the race, including Russell Armstrong, a veteran of Teach For America. The group recruits high-achieving college graduates, puts them through intense training and then sends them to troubled schools.
In District 7, incumbent Dale Bayard, of Lake Charles, who is often aligned with coalition forces, is being challenged by former state Teacher of the Year Holly Boffy, of Lafayette, who wants to end teacher tenure.
In District 2, incumbent Louella Givens, of New Orleans, an outspoken critic of many school changes, will face a challenge from Tira Orange Jones, who oversees a Teach for America office in New Orleans.
In District 1, BESE vice president Jim Garvey, who generally sides with the push for school changes, is under challenge from Lee Barrios, who is seen as aligned with coalition forces.
In far sout- central Louisiana, the District 3 slot long held by Glenny Lee Buquet, of Houma, is open since she is retiring.
Walter Lee, of Mansfield, and Keith Guice, of Monroe, face little if any opposition.
Of Jindal’s appointees, John Bennett, of Port Allen, says he is not interested in a second term.
Connie Bradford, of Ruston, a gubernatorial appointee, is thought to want to stay on BESE.
Penny Dastugue, of Mandeville, another Jindal appointee who is also president of BESE, said she hopes to be reappointed.
Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.