Some education reform groups have changed who they back in Baton Rouge school board races

The Advocate

With the Nov. 8 election day six weeks away, a notable divide has opened up within the Louisiana school reform community about whether to support incumbents on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board or to get behind their challengers. 

Thirty-three people have qualified to run for the nine seats on the parish School Board, and only three have been endorsed by the three school reform-oriented groups that have released endorsements so far: Mark BellueDadrius Lanus and Cliff Lewis.

Bellue in District 1 and Lanus in District 2 are incumbents. Lewis is challenging incumbent Evelyn Ware-Jackson’s bid for a fourth term; in 2018 Ware-Jackson beat Lewis by a 58-42 margin.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Stand For Children have long been some of the biggest financial backers of local school board candidates. Joining them is a new organization, the Baton Rouge Alliance for Students.

All three groups are aligned in their support for charter schools, but have important differences. Stand is a statewide education organization, the chamber is a regional business lobby that focuses on many issues, not just education, and the Alliance for Students is a Baton Rouge-only education organization.

All three are contributing money directly to candidates. All three groups are prepared to spend money independent of the campaigns, though support varies by race.

Stand For Children was the biggest player in the 2018 School Board elections, injecting more than $400,000 in the races that year.

Another big spender in past school board elections, Democrats For Education Reform, or DFER, is planning to announce the School Board candidates it supports in early October, said Executive Director Terrence Lockett. DFER endorses only Democrats.

Another organization active in the 2018 elections, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, is staying out of the Nov. 8 elections, said Executive Director Caroline Roemer.

In their most recent campaign finance reports, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Stand For Children had ample warchests of $130,000 and $237,000, respectively, with the ability to raise substantially more money if needed. The Baton Rouge Alliance for Students in January issued its most recent report, with $2,357 in the bank, but the group has been steadily raising money since then for the Nov. 8 elections.

Only one of the 33 candidates has filed a personal campaign finance report. The next one is due Oct. 11.

Stand For Children is supporting the most incumbents, five out of nine. In addition to Bellue and Lanus, the group has endorsed Jill Dyason, District 6; Mike Gaudet; District 7; and David Tatman, District 9. The deep-pocketed group has supported all five incumbents in previous elections.

Ware-Jackson is the only incumbent running who previously had Stand’s backing who no longer does. In 2018, Stand endorsed both Ware-Jackson and Lewis, but this time is supporting only Lewis, who works as a parent liaison at Helix Mentorship STEAM Academy, a charter school located in downtown Baton Rouge and is married to former metro councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis. Ware-Jackson has been endorsed by one of the two major teacher unions, the local chapter of the Association of Educators.

Carrie Griffin Monica, executive director of Stand’s Louisiana chapter, said its endorsements in Baton Rouge came from parents active with the organization and community members in the Capital City. Interested candidates filled out a questionnaire and sat for interviews.

“It’s 100% based on whether people support the things that we know move the needle for kids,” Monica said.

Stand has been notable as one of the most steadfast supporters of East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Sito Narcisse since he started in January 2021. Stand members routinely testify at board meetings in support of Narcisse initiatives.

Monica said its latest endorsements weren’t driven by whether candidates support Narcisse or not. She noted that Board President Tatman, whom Stand has endorsed, did not vote for Narcisse.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that her group generally supports what he does.

“Do we think outside of that, that Dr. Narcisse has been a leader who has invested in things that matter for kids? Yes,” Monica said.

Baton Rouge Area Chamber, via its FuturePAC political arm, has endorsed only three incumbents on the School Board. It has backed Dyason, Tatman and Ware-Jackson in the past, but not this go around.

The Chambers instead is supporting challengers Nathan RustPatrick Martin and Cliff Lewis, respectively. Rust is co-owner of Prestigious Painting in Baton Rouge, and Martin is an administrator at LSU.

Until this election, Dyason has had backing from the business lobby going back to when she first joined the School Board in 2001.

Both Dyason and Tatman won’t lack for money. At the end of 2021, Dyason had more than $22,000 and Tatman had more than $65,000 on hand.

In the case of District 7, FuturePAC endorsed incumbent Gaudet, who has been on the board since 2017, but also endorsed one of his two challengers, Gloria Wall. Wall is a former school physical therapist who serves on the boards of A.C. Lewis YMCA, Rocketkidz Foundation and Club South Runners.

The endorsements issued by Baton Rouge Alliance for Students, which was formed in 2021, are almost identical to those of the Chamber, except the organization endorsed only Wall, opting not to endorse Gaudet. Bellue and Lanus are the only incumbents the Alliance is supporting.

“We are very policy driven in how we evaluate new candidates and existing candidates,” explained founder Adonica Duggan, previously a communications director for the Zachary and East Baton Rouge school systems as well for the nonprofit group, New Schools for Baton Rouge.

“It doesn’t mean that we don’t think that the other incumbents are not nice people,” she added.

The races for districts 3, 4 and 8 are open seats after incumbents Tramelle Howard, Dawn Collins and Connie Bernard bowed out – Bernard’s name will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot but she announced earlier this month that he has ceased campaigning. 

Of the newcomers, only Shashonnie Steward is supported by all three school reform groups. Steward is one of three candidates seeking to replace the outgoing Dawn Collins to represent District 4. Steward, along with Lewis in District 5, has received the endorsement of the local chapter of the Federation of Teachers. The rival teachers union, the local Association of Educators, has endorsed Tebbe Jackson in the District 4 race.

Steward is owner of Redstick Rehabilitative & Correctional Services, while Jackson is a 21-year veteran educator, 10 of them with the parish school system. The third candidate in that race is Monique Wicks Robinson.

The two unions agree on the district 2 and 7 races, each endorsing Vereta Lee and Cathy Carmichael. Lee is in a rematch with Dadrius Lee who unseated her in 2018, ending her 12-year tenure on the parish School Board. Carmichael, who has three children in Baton Rouge public schools and is active in school issues, is one of two challengers to District 7 incumbent Mike Gaudet.

In districts 3 and 8, the Chamber and the Alliance for Students are supporting newcomers Carla Powell, a veteran social studies teacher in Iberville Parish and minister at a Baptist church, as well as Joseph Britt, a senior regional procurement manager for Westlake Corporation in Geismar. Stand For Children, however, opted to endorse no candidates in those two races.

In District 3, both teachers unions have endorsed Jamie Robinson, a member of the parish’s Democratic Party executive committee who ran unsuccessfully for Metro Council in 2020. The third candidate in the District 3 race is Bernadette Thomas.

In District 8, neither teacher union endorsed Joseph Britt’s lone opponent, Karen Kennison.

The unions diverge in the District 9 race. The Federation of Teachers has endorsed retired juvenile court judge Pamela Taylor Johnson, who is seeking to unseat David Tatman, while the Association of Educator opted not to endorse anyone in that race.

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