3 East Baton Rouge school board races head to December runoff

Three East Baton Rouge school board races — including one that pits two incumbents against each other — are headed to a Dec. 6 runoff following Tuesday’s election.

Board members Jerry Arbour and Evelyn Ware-Jackson finished neck-and-neck against each other in the primary, and now face a runoff that’s likely to be heated. Arbour found himself having to choose which of his board colleagues to run against, after a controversial reapportionment this summer shrunk the board from 11 members to 9.

One other incumbent will be in a runoff against a challenger: Connie Bernard finished first in her race against Christopher Bailey and two other candidates, but having received 46.63 percent of the vote to Bailey’s 36.21 percent, it was not enough to win outright on Tuesday.

Incumbent Mary Lynch, who has only been on the board for about 6 months to finish the term of the late Randy Lamana, will not be on the board next year. With 19.98 percent of the vote, she finished third to two challengers, Jennifer Andrews and Mark Bellue, who will face each other in December. Bellue received 48.53  percent of the vote and Andrews had 31.5 percent.

The other six board members will remain the same: Barbara Freiberg, Tarvald Smith and Vereta Lee were re-elected outright on Tuesday. Board president David Tatman and members Kenyetta Nelson-Smith, and Jill Dyason had already been re-elected, either because they were running without opposition or because their challengers dropped out due to residency questions.

The board that is ultimately elected will be tasked with critical decisions affecting the future of the school system over the next four years, including choosing a new superintendent after Bernard Taylor leaves at the end of this school year, and any fallout for the school district if the city of St. George comes to exist.

The District 5 race, which pits Arbour and Ware-Jackson against each other, is a clear result of the board’s narrow vote earlier this year to shrink the board’s size and redraw district lines.  The reapportionment forced Arbour into the same district as board president Tatman, and he ultimately chose to run against Ware-Jackson instead, leaving Tatman to be re-elected without opposition. Arbour will have to move if he wins.

Ware-Jackson finished just ahead of Arbour, with 33.95 percent of the vote compared to Arbour’s 31.29 percent.

The reapportionment and this election have shown how the board’s divided in two over issues of reform and ties to the local business community: Nearly all of the 6 board members who voted in favor of the reapportionment in the narrow 6-5 vote have since received the endorsement and support of local business representatives. The other five board members who opposed the reapportionment, did not receive that support — and in some cases, their competitors were backed.

The initial proposal to shrink the board was pushed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in this year’s legislative session. That effort failed, and the board had said it would take up the proposal on its own. Ultimately, in July, the board voted 6-5 to to approve the reapportionment and essentially eliminate two seats — Arbour’s, and Craig Freeman’s, though Freeman was moving and not planning to seek re-election.

Those in favor of the reapportionment were Tatman, Ware-Jackson, Freeman, Bernard, Freiberg, and Dyason. All of those except Freeman and Bernard received the backing of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s FuturePAC, as well as the “Better Schools for Better Futures” PAC that was formed by local businessman Lane Grigsby and others. Those groups backed Bernard’s opponent, Bailey.

The two business-related PACs are pushing for reforms in the district: BRAC was behind the legislative effort this spring to give more autonomy to principals, and Better Schools has said it wants to do the same, as well as hire a reform-minded superintendent after Taylor leaves.

Arbour was part of the group of board members who did not support the reapportionment, and BRAC and Grigsby’s PACs in 2010 targeted both he and Winfield to remove them from the board. Arbour still managed to win re-election, but Winfield did not. This time, Winfield finished third with 24.99 percent of the vote, and the key question in the runoff will be how much of his support goes to Arbour.

Tarvald Smith and Vereta Lee, who both opposed reapportionment and were not backed by the PACs, easily won re-election, with Smith receiving 60.08 percent of the vote and Lee garnering 65.51 percent.

Freiberg easily won re-election Tuesday, with 75.68 percent of the vote.

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