Board president possibilities maneuver for leadership post

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An upcoming vacuum in the presidency of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board will come to head when the board meets again in the new year.

Barbara Freiberg, who has served as president for the past two years, is saying she does not plan to seek the job again when the board holds its first regular meeting on Jan. 17.

One board member, David Tatman, says he is seeking the job, while two more veteran board members, Jerry Arbour and Tarvald Smith, say they are considering seeking the job. The possibility of a divided vote also leaves room for other board members to pursue the job as dark horse candidates.

The dynamics are similar to January 2011 when Freiberg won the job, just minutes after taking her oath of office. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber had just led an expensive drive to potentially oust incumbents from the board.

At the same time, the parish School Board shrunk from 12 to 11 members as a consequence of the formation of the Central school system in 2007.

Freiberg was one of six new board members, a majority, and she led a coalition that held off Arbour from staying on as president, a job he had held for three years before that. Freiberg barely won, by a 6-5 margin. Smith, who had also sought the presidency, ended up settling for remaining as vice president.

The two represented a mix of new and old, but also black and white; Freiberg is white and Smith is black. The move also maintained the board’s tradition of having racial balance in its leadership, similar to makeup of the board itself — six white and five black members — and a similar split among the voting public. Nevertheless, more than 80 percent of the school system’s almost 43,000 students are black.

Freiberg tried to bridge the differences between the newer and older members, including creating a series of task forces to tackle specific issues, such as early childhood education and transportation. Those task forces, however, dissolved after a few months with little to show for their efforts.

The new-old member divide re-emerged most forcefully during the superintendent search when five members who supported Arbour for president threw their support to then Chief Academic Officer Herman Brister Jr.

After a long, contentious search, the board unanimously chose current Superintendent Bernard Taylor for the job, bringing him in from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he had served six years as superintendent.

Freiberg, Tatman, Arbour and Smith were interviewed earlier this week about the presidency.

“I believe in change in leadership, and I believe it’s the right thing to do,” Freiberg said.

Tatman, who is white, is the most visible in seeking to replace Freiberg. Tatman, who joined the board at the same time Freiberg did, talked about running in 2011 but decided to back Freiberg instead.

“I think I have the qualifications and I think I have the leadership to do it, and I was encouraged by several of my colleagues to run,” Tatman said.

“I run a small business, I employ people, I believe I have some strong organizational skill sets,” said Tatman, whose firm, The Tatman Group, counts many governmental associations as clients.

Tatman downplayed past friction between new and old board members.

“Any public body, any private body, takes time to settle into their dynamics,” he said. “I think the board is getting along very well right now. There are good conversations occurring.”

Arbour, who is white, said he hasn’t decided whether to again seek the board presidency. He said he is also up for a position on the board for the Council of Urban Boards of Education, an urban-focused arm of the National School Boards Association. That position would mean multiple trips and at least one retreat, too much time away to also serve as board president, Arbour said. He said he’ll know soon whether he’s likely to get that post.

If he decides not to run for board president, Arbour said he has an idea of who he would like to run instead.

“(The board) needs somebody who will try to unite the board,” Arbour said.

The best person, he said, is fellow board member Randy Lamana, though Arbour stressed that he hasn’t talked to Lamana about running for president.

Smith said he would happily serve as president, saying he knows the district best of his colleague and brings with him a diversity of experience. Yet, he said he would also be willing to continue as vice president if he cannot be president.

“I’m very much interested. I would love to take my 8½ years of dealing with the board and put it to use,” Smith said.

Smith said he is not planning to spend much time talking up his candidacy to his colleagues. He said the board used to choose its leaders based on who had the time to do the job and who had the most experience. He said he wishes that were still the case.

“Now, it seems like it’s a lobbying thing, politicking, vote certain ways to appeal certain people kind of deal,” Smith said.