Lafayette School Board to consider stand against legislation

The Lafayette Parish School Board plans to meet Wednesday to consider taking a formal and unified stand against proposed legislation that singles out the Lafayette board.

State Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, filed three pieces of legislation specific to the Lafayette board that are under consideration in the current legislative session. One bill — HB 786 — would move the board’s current election cycle to a gubernatorial election year. That bill received approval in the House in a 55-32 vote on April 10 and awaits consideration in the Senate.

Two more bills are related to how the board is structured. One bill — HB 980 creates a community commission to investigate other forms of school board governance beyond the current all-elected board member structure in Lafayette Parish. The bill also gives the commission the authority to recommend an election for voters to decide whether to make any governance changes. A second related bill — HB 593 — provides a constitutional amendment to make the governance change with voter approval. Both HB 593 and HB 980 have not yet been considered by the House Education committee.

Lafayette Parish School Board President Hunter Beasley questioned why the bills “single out” Lafayette Parish and criticized Landry for not discussing her intentions with the board. Beasley plans to bring a resolution that opposes the three pieces of legislation to the board at a special meeting planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday. A copy of the resolution was not readily available. Beasley said he felt it was necessary for the board to formalize its objections to the legislation.

“I don’t have a problem with her doing what she thinks she needs to do,” Beasley said. “The thing that I think myself and other board members have an issue with is that she never came to us to discuss her concerns or her thoughts about those bills.”

Landry said her bills are products of constituents’ concerns that the board has lost focus.

“My legislation is designed to solve the problem caused by the dysfunction of the current School Board, so I’m not surprised that they’d be opposed to it,” Landry said. “I’ve had different calls from people, and I’ve had concerns over the School Board and how they’ve lost their focus and the mission of educating children.”

Voters will elect new School Board members this fall. Dismal turnouts in prior school board elections — an average of 25 percent — justify moving the election cycle to a gubernatorial election year where the average turnout is about 45 percent, Landry said.

The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce supports the legislation because it would help boost overall voter turnout, said Julie Simon-Dronet, chamber board chairman and executive director of operations for Cox Acadiana.

“Research suggests that ‘on-cycle’ school board elections boost overall voter turnout and are associated with higher student performance,” Simon-Dronet said in an email. “The quality of the public education system is something that impacts everyone in our community, and we believe that a higher voter turnout will help build a better school system.”

If approved, the election cycle change would take effect in 2019, so board members elected this fall would serve a five-year term, Landry said. There’s no cost associated with moving the school board election to a statewide election date, according to the fiscal notes by the Office of the Legislative Auditor attached to the legislation. The Legislative Auditor’s Office also notes that there could be a cost savings, but the amount of savings is unknown.

State Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, was the only Lafayette Parish representative who voted against the bill to change the election cycle. Pierre was unable to be reached Thursday and Friday. State Reps. Terry Landry and Joel Robideaux, whose districts also include Lafayette Parish, were absent for the vote.

The Louisiana School Boards Association opposes the proposed changes specific to Lafayette Parish — in part because the legislation was filed without feedback from the local board, said Scott Richard, Louisiana School Boards Association executive director. Richard is a former Lafayette Parish School System employee and former St. Landry Parish School Board member.

“This particular instrument singles out one individual school board, which raises a red flag for the association,” Richard said.

Richard said legislation that affects a local governing authority is typically initiated at the request of that local government body.

“This did not occur,” Richard said. “In fact, just the opposite.”

Richard said while voter turnout statistics show more people vote in the gubernatorial election, it doesn’t guarantee that more people will vote in the school board races.

In Lafayette Parish, each of the board’s nine members are elected by voters in their respective districts. Across the country, some school districts are governed in a similar manner. Examples of different school board governance structures include boards with at-large members elected by voters or a combination of district-specific elected officials and elected or appointed at-large members. Some school boards also are overseen by city government.

A newly organized group, Power of Public Education Lafayette opposes legislation that attempts to change board governance, said Ann Burruss, a PPEL executive board member.

“We strongly believe that the closest to real democracy that you can get in a parish is to elect a school board and a (city-parish) council,” Burruss said. “It’s about accountability. They can not be re-elected or they can be recalled.”

While aware that Landry’s legislation doesn’t dictate any changes, Burruss still questioned the need for a study.

“Where has this issue risen up that we demand that we don’t trust in the process to elect a representative and choose well and correct the situation if we haven’t chosen well?” Burruss asked.

Landry said her legislation related to school board governance is not an attempt to overthrow the current school board structure, but it opens the door for a commission to study different forms of governance and whether any change could benefit Lafayette.

“It brings all the stakeholders to the table to study it and then hold public hearings,” Landry said. “Then if there’s a plan they think the community wants, they’d have the authority to put it to the vote of the people.”