BESE races generating rare level of interest

Seven races for the state’s top school board will decide the direction of public education in Louisiana, officials said.

“They are some of the most important elections that we have had in my lifetime because there is such division now,” said Leslie Jacobs, who was a 12-year member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

BESE has 11 members, including eight chosen by voters and three named by the governor.

During last week’s qualifying 20 contenders signed up for the seven contested races — including six in south Louisiana — while Walter Lee, of Mansfield, avoided any opposition.

Each of the seven features contenders likely backed by rival camps — business leaders and others who say they plan to spend about $1 million versus a coalition of teacher unions, superintendents and school board members.

The winners will decide key policies for the next four years, including whether Gov. Bobby Jindal gets his choice for state superintendent of education.

Jindal, who is seeking a second term, is already involved in BESE races, which is unusual.

He said new measures on assessing teachers, dropout prevention and letter grades for schools are the kinds of steps that aid students and Louisiana’s economy.

“It is important that we not lose our forward progress,” Jindal said.

In addition, a state board that rarely showed major splits in the past has been marked by 6-5 votes on key issues for months.

“I have seen personality as much as issues drive the division,” Jacobs said.

Penny Dastugue, who is president of BESE and was appointed by Jindal, said virtually every district features candidates who represent radically different education philosophies.

The two camps appear split between those who argue that public schools still need major changes and those who contend charter schools, state school takeovers and other steps are misguided.

“Most every candidate represents one side or the other,” Dastugue said.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said plans by the Alliance for Better Classrooms, or ABC, to spend $1 million or more for its candidates could have a polarizing impact on education issues.

Monaghan said if one side assumes a “take-no-prisoners” view, “then I think we are looking at a very difficult four years.”

But ABC leaders, including Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby, said they got involved because Louisiana’s public school system is not working.

Jindal needs eight of BESE’s 11 votes to name a new superintendent.

The governor favors John White, 35, who is superintendent of the Recovery School District, which oversees troubled public schools overseen by the state.

However, four current BESE members say they oppose White.

Walter Lee said he will back White if he is the eighth vote “if the Governor’s Office is supporting him that strongly.”

Ollie Tyler is serving as acting superintendent.

Two of the seven BESE races will unfold in the Baton Rouge area.

District 6 incumbent Chas Roemer, who is backed by Jindal and will likely be endorsed by ABC, will be challenged by former Ascension Parish Superintendent Donald Songy.

Songy will likely be backed by the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, which includes teacher unions and others.

Former teacher Elizabeth Meyers, of Denham Springs, is also in the race.

In District 8, which Linda Johnson, of Plaquemine, is leaving, four contenders are in the race.

Domoine Rutledge, of Baton Rouge, a veteran attorney with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, may be backed by the coalition of teacher unions and others.

Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge, a certified social worker, and Russell Armstrong, a state education official and a veteran of Teach for America, are also in the race as is Jimmy Guillory, of Plaucheville.

District 7 incumbent Dale Bayard, a likely coalition candidate, faces a challenge from former “state teacher of the year” Holly Boffy, of Youngsville. She is backed by Jindal.

District 3 veteran incumbent Glenny Lee Buquet, whom Jindal also backs, is opposed by Lottie Polozola Beebe, of Breaux Bridge.

In the three other races:

•┬áDistrict 1 incumbent Jim Garvey, of Mandeville, who is vice president of BESE and supported by the governor, faces Lee Barrios, of Abita Springs and Sharon W. Hewitt, of Slidell.

•┬áDistrict 2 incumbent Louella Givens, of New Orleans, is opposed by Kira Orange Jones, who is executive director of Teach for America in Greater New Orleans, and two others.

•┬áDistrict 5 incumbent Keith Guice, of Monroe, is opposed by Jay Guillot, of Ruston, who is backed by Jindal and some business groups.