Seven new members of the St. Tammany Parish School Board cast their first votes shortly after being sworn in Thursday evening at the C.J. Schoen Building in Covington.
It was the largest turnover in some time to the 15-person board that sets policy for the parish’s 55 schools, 39,000 students and 5,800 employees. Four members from the previous school board didn’t seek reelection and three others were defeated by political newcomers.
School Board veterans, however, were chosen for leadership positions on the board, as expected.
Elizabeth Heintz, who is beginning her sixth four-year term representing District 2 in the Covington area, was voted president. Michal Nation of District 5 in the Mandeville area, was elected vice president. This is Nation’s second term on the School Board.
District 3’s Michael Dirmann was voted chairman of the Business Affairs/Administrative Committee and District 14’s Dennis Cousin was voted to chair the Human Resources/Education Committee.
The selection of board officers was one of only a small handful of items on the January agenda. Most of the evening was reserved for a swearing-in ceremony, during which each of the 15 members took their oath of office and had pictures taken with their families.
Also returning to the school board are Jack Loup, Sharon Drucker, Ronald Bettencourt and Rickey Hursey. New members include Matthew Greene, Brandon Harrell, Shelta Richardson, Michael Winkler, Tammy Lamy, James Braud and Lisa Page.
Heintz, who has served the longest of any current member, said she’s met with several new board members who have asked routine questions about meetings, as much as anything else.
“A good member is someone who keeps the children’s best interests in mind first,” she said. “You have to attend the meetings and you have to listen carefully to what’s said by the public, by the administration and by your fellow board members.”
Hursey, who is entering his second term on the school board representing south Slidell, said being able to put aside differences of opinion to do what’s best for students is key.
“You have to identify the problems and listen to others at the same time,” he said. “It’s crucial. Everyone has their own ideas; all 15 of us. You get the feedback and you listen to professionals who run the schools to give you the right information to make the best choices.”
Lamy taught in Slidell-area public schools for two decades before retiring. She said that perspective, from the inside of a classroom, allowed her to better see what should be done on the School Board dais.
“I felt called to do this,” she said. “From a teacher’s perspective and from a parent’s perspective, there are some things that I don’t think are going in the right direction. … I want to be a voice (to change those things.)"
Braud said a first term often is a learning experience, but he wants to team with others to make sure the board is effective quickly. He noted that St. Tammany is no longer the state’s top-rated district, and he wants to get better.
“There’s room for improvement,” Braud said.
“I want to form some coalitions; get together with the other members and come up with some plans for an agenda for the next four years. Do I have a hard and solid (idea of what that it is right now?) No, but I'd like to look at the finances. I’d like to see if we can improve on the efficiency and save money where we can; use money more effectively where we can.”
Greene said he knew he would doing much more listening than speaking during his first school board meeting.
“For me, I just wanted to remain humble … and get a feel for how things work,” he said. “I’m not in a position right now to throw my weight around. I’m just learning the ropes.”
But Dirmann, who is beginning his fifth term on the school board, said he suspects the newcomers will be ready for leadership positions by the time voting for officers arrives again in 2020.
“It’s an honor,” he said after accepting the nomination to be a committee chair in 2019. “And I will commit this one year. I know we have a lot of new blood coming on. With seven new members, that’s a lot of new ideas. One of them will have a chance.”