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Larry Dale, of District VI, and Mark Morgan, of District one, listen to possible next superintendent of Jefferson Parish schools, Cade Brumley, answer a variety of questions at the Jefferson Parish Public School System Administration Building in Harvey, La., Monday, March 5, 2018.

Handshakes, pledges of unity, sharp words and an apology: Welcome to the "new" Jefferson Parish School Board.

After last fall's contentious elections, the nine board members, including four newcomers, were eager to show a new face to the public after the previous board was widely seen as characterized by bickering, deep divisions and personal animus. But when the time came for their first major policy vote at their first regular meeting Thursday night, two members dissented, and a member of the majority said he was "disturbed" by the move to break the unity.

That vote divided up the board's two tax proposals, one for teacher pay and another for facilities improvements, into at least two elections.

In December, the previous board signaled its intention to ask voters to approve both taxes May 4, but on Thursday, the board voted to delay the 8.31-mill facilities proposal until an unspecified future date. That means Jefferson voters will be asked to decide only on the 7.9-mill tax for teacher raises May 4.

Board member Ricky Johnson, who represents a west bank district and is beginning his second term, said delaying would force him to break a campaign promise. "I ran saying I would try my best to do this for my constituents as soon as possible," Johnson said. "I can't agree to take it off."

Johnson noted that the system spent $1 million on a consultant's report that recommended replacing many of the system's aging and outdated schools as soon as possible.

Johnson's comments drew a strong reaction from Mark Morgan, who said splitting the vote doesn't mean that a facilities millage proposal is dead.

"I will fully commit that this will be brought back before the public before half of this (four-year) term is over," he said. 

Morgan also criticized Johnson for not voting with the majority, saying that "board unity" is one of the keys to a successful school system.

"It disturbs me that at our first meeting we have somebody breaking off," he said.

Morgan said Friday that he had reached out to Johnson later to apologize for the comment, calling it a "hangover" from the previous board. He said Johnson was gracious, and the two then "had a good talk about moving the system forward." 

Board members who supported the split said that asking voters to approve more than 16 mills in new taxes at one time when the system's test scores have languished for several years may be too much. The system earned a grade of C in the most recent state ratings. 

Delaying the facilities millage vote will allow the board to focus on passing the teacher pay-raise millage, something board members and administrators have said is a priority.

"I certainly understand Mr. Johnson's concerns," new member Billy North said. "Many of my constituents have concerns with one millage, much less two. ... The trust of this community needs to be brought back."

Johnson's comments ultimately failed to sway most of his colleagues, seven of whom voted to split up the two ballot measures. Johnson and Simeon Dickerson, the board's two African-American members, voted to keep them both on the May 4 ballot.

That vote wasn't the only sign of possible choppy waters ahead for the board.

North announced his intention to seek a forensic audit of the system's finances, something that could take months, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly hurt the effort to get a new tax passed. He also moved to hold more board meetings on the east bank.

Dickerson, also a new member, revived a proposal to spend millions of dollars to purchase a plot of land near the NOLA Motorsports site for a career and vocational education school. That idea was proposed and then postponed last year.

At a special meeting a day earlier, the board elected officers for the new year. Larry Dale was chosen as president, succeeding Morgan. Tiffany Kuhn was elected vice president. Both are holdovers from the previous board. 

  

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.