Our Views: Board splits go to voters

While this fall’s Louisiana election for U.S. Senate will get most of the spotlight, area school board races also are worth watching.

Election qualifying, which includes races for nine seats each in East Baton Rouge and Lafayette parishes, is Wednesday through Friday. Who signs up to run will be closely parsed for clues as to the direction of the Lafayette and East Baton Rouge boards.

In Lafayette, in part because of battles over patronage and in part because of the advent of charter schools, controversy has dogged the last four years of the current board. Having hired the highly regarded superintendent Pat Cooper, a bare majority of the board fell out with him. This year, the superintendent and board have unresolved issues over the school budget, even though the fiscal year began July 1 and another school year has commenced.

In Baton Rouge, the board has decided not to offer a contract renewal to Superintendent Bernard Taylor, who has led some improvements in academic success in schools. But the improvement is not fast enough, as some other, larger districts — Jefferson Parish, for one, led by retiring Superintendent Jim Meza and a board elected four years ago — have outpaced East Baton Rouge. Lafayette also has made considerable progress under Cooper’s leadership.

The Baton Rouge board also will be smaller after the fall election — down to nine members after a bare majority decided to shrink the board by two seats. That was controversial, as the board had been redistricted only a couple of years ago after the 2010 census.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber suggests that smaller boards, particularly in urban districts, can be more cohesive and avoid political battles. We do not see any magic in nine versus 11, and Lafayette is Exhibit A, as the 5-4 split there demonstrates.

The election on Nov. 4 should advance school board members who are dedicated to progress and not political turf battles; members should see themselves as a board of directors, not as a mini-Legislature working for the multitude of constituencies interested in schools.

It is quality that matters, and this Nov. 4 will be more significant for public education than many others in past years in both Baton Rouge and Lafayette.