Lafayette business leaders focus on crowded board race

The Lafayette Parish School Board races drew 20 candidates for a Nov. 4 election that business leaders say they hope will bring a change from micromanagement and meddling of school operations.

“We’re at an impasse. We’re not getting things done and I think we need a fresh start,” said Jan Swift, executive director of the Upper Lafayette Economic Development Foundation. “People are watching the lack of a budget, the micromanaging of every detail that comes down the pipe. We’re being held back by the current situation that we have.”

Four new candidates qualified for the election on Friday, the last day of qualifying: “Coach Don” Gagnard, No Party-District 1, of Scott; Redell “Mama” Comeaux Miller, D-Scott, of District 1; James Chavis, D-Lafayette, of District 2; and Erick Knezek, R-Lafayette, of District 8.

This year’s race drew far more interest than the 2010 elections.

At the close of qualifying in 2010, three board members were re-elected without opposition: Shelton Cobb, Rae Trahan and Mark Cockerham. This year, Trahan isn’t seeking re-election and Cobb and Cockerham both have challengers for their district seat.

At least three districts will be represented by new members because incumbents Trahan, Mark Babineaux and Greg Awbrey opted not to seek re-election.

Swift said there’s increased interest in School Board operations, particularly from the business community.

“We have the DA and judicial races, but the School Board elections are at the top of the priority list from what I hear,” Swift said.

This summer, the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council, which includes Swift’s organization and civic and business groups, such as the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, started an initiative to gather input on the public’s views on school board operations.

The Chamber and other LaPESC members have endorsed the district’s turnaround plan touted by Superintendent Pat Cooper. They also outlined initiatives they’d like the board to support in a report released in June called, A Common Vision for Our Future.

The report was issued prior to qualifying for the elections and includes information gathered during community roundtable discussions focused on education.

When the report came out, Chamber President Jason El Koubi said that the School Board elections presented “an opportunity to rally around a common vision. As a community, we have an opportunity to translate this vision into progress.”

El Koubi was traveling abroad Friday and unavailable for comment on the large number of candidates who have filed to run for seats on the board.

The Chamber has encouraged interest among potential candidates and held a campaign workshop to offer advice to contenders a few weeks ago.

Knezek, one of the candidates, is on the Chamber’s board of directors.

Relations between the current board and Cooper have often been rancorous. An attorney the board hired to investigate Cooper will present his findings to the board sometime next week.

Cooper has said he’s confident that he’s done nothing wrong based on the issues the attorney discussed with him this week. However, he said he believes the board ordered the investigation as a way to identify potential charges to bring against him to start termination proceedings.

The current board is sharply divided when it comes to Cooper.

Cobb, Cockerham and Kermit Bouillion have been supportive of the superintendent. Those who typically stand against Cooper and who supported investigating him are Trahan, Babineaux, Awbrey, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle and Tehmi Chassion.

Where candidates stand in supporting or opposing Cooper likely won’t be a factor in the upcoming election, Swift said.

“It’s a bigger issue than pro- or anti-Cooper,” Swift said. “I really believe the best School Board candidates will be supporting the turnaround plan, and I’d like to see the personalities out of it.”

Youngsville Mayor Wilson Viator has appealed to the current board in the past two years to address overcrowding in his city, and while the board has approved projects to expand two schools there, new schools are needed, he said. That will take money and Viator said new blood could help build support in the community for new schools.

“We need new people on the board,” he said. “Until we have that, voters aren’t going to give them another red penny.”

In her role as a member of the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council, Swift is gathering feedback on what the public wants to ask candidates in the council’s upcoming candidate forum in September. She said several business leaders are more concerned about how the board conducts its own business.

“The consensus that I got — and it was mainly from CEOs from large companies — they wanted to know why the School Board couldn’t be run similar to how successful businesses are run,” Swift said. “Other School Boards across the state don’t meet for hours. They’re in and out within an hour, an hour and a half. They get work done by committee, and they work as a team.”

Swift said her organization doesn’t endorse candidates, but plans to encourage the public to attend candidate forums and learn more about candidates.

“Upper Lafayette’s future depends on turning our whole school system around,” she said. “We’re very supportive of those efforts and getting a school board that can focus on the business at hand.”

Other candidates who qualified on Wednesday and Thursday:

District 1: Mary Morrison, D-Scott

District 2: Tommy Angelle, incumbent, D-Carencro; Simon Mahan, No Party-Lafayette

District 3: Elroy Broussard, D-Lafayette; Shelton Cobb, incumbent, D-Lafayette

District 4: Tehmi Chassion, incumbent, D-Lafayette; Erica Williams, D-Lafayette

District 5: Kermit Bouillion, incumbent, R-Duson; Britt Latiolais, R-Lafayette

District 6: Justin Centanni, R-Lafayette; Kathleen Schott Espinoza, No Party-Lafayette

District 7: Mark Cockerham, incumbent, R-Lafayette; Dawn Morris, R-Lafayette

District 8: Hunter Beasley, incumbent, I-Lafayette

District 9: Jeremy Hidalgo, R-Youngsville; Brian West, R-Lafayette

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.