Lafayette schools bill advances to Senate

Elections would coincide with governor’s election

Lafayette Parish School Board elections would coincide with the balloting for governor under a bill that is one step away from final legislative passage.

The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 5-1 for legislation to allow the Lafayette Parish School Board to deviate from the norm. Today, all but Orleans Parish conduct school board elections during congressional balloting.

State Rep. Nancy Landry said gubernatorial elections have a higher turnout and a better “community consensus” could be achieved on the important School Board slots.

“Many people want our elections to be on a higher turnout election, so we have more people choosing our School Board members,” said Landry, R-Lafayette.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to get elected in a low-turnout election,” she said. “There’s a huge constituency in Lafayette that wants things to change.”

House Bill 786 is favored by the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and opposed by the School Board as well as some community public education advocates. It is one of several bills Landry filed in response to turmoil on the board.

Patricia Sonnier, a retired educator, said she could find no evidence that changing election dates would improve voter participation. She said the governor’s race ballot is lengthy, including proposed constitutional amendments, and the School Board races would be “down ballot” where voting tapers off. “It gets to be a question and a gamble when it gets to the end,” she said.

“Keep Lafayette in line with the rest of the state,” Sonnier urged. “Orleans is different. They have their reason but we in Lafayette want to stay with the rest of the state.”

School Board member Greg Awbrey asked the panel kill the measure.

“If this is a valid discussion for Lafayette Parish, I think the discussion should take place there,” Awbrey said. “Allow the School Board to bring the bill if it is indeed what we want in Lafayette Parish.”

“If this is the way to go, why would this bill not be statewide,” School Board member Rae Trahan said.

Awbrey and others said they were blindsided by the proposal.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, suggested amending the legislation to call for a Lafayette Parish referendum on the issue in the fall statewide election.

Awbrey said he did not see a problem with a vote but Murray did not pursue the change.

HB786 goes to the Senate floor for debate. With approval and absent changes to its content, the bill’s next stop is the governor’s desk.

To facilitate the changeover, the School Board members elected during this year’s congressional elections would serve five-year terms to get them in sync with the governor’s election schedule. After that, School Board members would go back to regular four-year terms with terms beginning Jan. 1 following their election.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.