Coalition sets sights on shaping board

Candidates tentative as school districts may realign

Cajun Industries founder Lane Grigsby is readying for yet another political assault on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

Grigsby contributed tens of thousands of dollars in 2010 as part of a campaign to oust School Board incumbents. Despite withering attacks, three of the five targeted board members managed to win re-election. The result was a board divided 6-5 on an array of issues.

Grigsby recently looked back to 1994 when he supported Community Action for Public Education, or CAPE, which replaced nine of 12 School Board members. He later grew dissatisfied, though, with the progress that board made.

“It’s never ever really been successful,” Grigsby said of past attempts to change the board, “but that doesn’t mean we should quit trying. Kids still need an education.”

Grigsby said past School Board members were overly influenced by the people they were elected to change.

“You need strong leadership, otherwise the board can be manipulated by the system,” he said.

He said he’s gathering together a week from now a like-minded coalition of groups, including the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Stand for Children and the American Federation of Children, to settle on five or six issues that would form a platform for change. He said he’s not going to let just anyone come, but “I want it to be as open as it possibly can be.”

“I’d like to think we can come to a consensus as to who we should support and look to see who we can get elected,” Grigsby said.

Board member Jerry Arbour is one of the three incumbents targeted unsuccessfully in 2010, beating his opponent then by 100 votes. He said he’s not sure whether he’ll run for a third term, saying he’s also considering running for judge again. Arbour has been critical of past campaigns to replace board members, saying they reflect a power grab, not a genuine concern for improving public education. He doubted the latest effort will change the status quo much.

“The board is split this time and could very well be split next time,” Arbour said.

At present, things are quiet. Yard signs heralding the coming of election season are sprouting up all over Baton Rouge, promoting a range of candidates vying in upcoming congressional and judicial races but almost no mention of the Nov. 4 School Board races.

The exception is W.T. Winfield, whose signs have been posted around inner city Baton Rouge for weeks. Winfield and Noel Hammatt were the two successful targets of Grigsby and company in 2010. This time, though, Winfield won’t be facing the man who beat him, LSU Associate Professor Craig Freeman. Freeman has announced he is not planning to run for re-election.

By this time four years ago, several candidates had announced and were openly campaigning. Qualifying for the Nov. 4 elections takes place just seven weeks from now, Aug. 20 to 22.

Raymond Allmon, a managing city director with the parent group Stand for Children, may run again. In 2010, he fell 464 votes short of unseating then School Board member Randy Lamana. After Lamana died suddenly April 16, Allmon sought unsuccessfully to get appointed to complete the remaining eight months on Lamana’s term.

He said he may opt not to run if other quality candidates considering running do enter the race.

His group has been working for months to find people interested in the job. Allmon has claimed in the past that Stand for Children would spend as much as $300,000 on this fall’s School Board elections, but the group’s campaign finance reports show little activity since 2012. Allmon is predicting that all but three of the races this fall will be competitive. He said the dearth of yard signs doesn’t mean anything.

“Signs don’t vote,” Allmon said. “People do.”

Mary Lynch, a parent the board chose May 2 over Allmon to replace Lamana, offers a simpler reason for the lack of electioneering.

“I think we’re all still kind of in a holding pattern until we see what shakes out with redistricting,” she said.

On July 24, the 11-member School Board is considering reducing its membership — as small as seven to 10 members. New districts would result in anywhere from two to eight incumbents facing off against each other, depending on which of the five plans the board picks.

If the board lacks the six votes needed to approve new maps, then it will remain at 11 members, moving forward with maps approved less than two years ago.

Lynch, who represents District 11, and Kenyetta Nelson-Smith, who represents District 3, are among the five board members who oppose the last-minute redistricting. Both say they may not run if it goes through over their objections.

“It depends upon who it pits me running against,” Lynch said, saying that she may not take on a quality incumbent.

Nelson-Smith said she’s not worried about her potential opposition, but is against the kind of board such a change would produce.

“It’s not favorable for the community, having a smaller board controlled by the chamber and their supporters,” Nelson-Smith said.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber is the most prominent supporter of shrinking the size of the board. The business lobbying group drew up and pushed legislation to force a size reduction on the board, saying it would save money and make the body operate more efficiently. Opponents argued it was a political move meant to make it easier to elect board members more favorable to the chamber.

The legislation fell short in the spring in the state House of Representatives. The House also voted down companion legislation, also developed by the chamber, that would have stripped much of the power from the School Board and the superintendent and instead give it to principals.

The School Board, however, may still do what the Legislature wouldn’t, at least when it comes to shrinking the board.

The parent group One Community, One School District, which vigorously opposed the chamber’s proposed legislation, has called a meeting at 6:30 p.m. July 16 at the Main Library to discuss the pros and cons of shrinking the board.

For its part, the chamber has spent the past month since the Legislature rejected its proposals weighing what to do next.

“We will be active in the election. The strategy remains to be seen,” said Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the chamber. “We’ve been meeting with a lot of folks before we jump into the fray again.”

The chamber already has spent some money. Through its Future PAC, it has given $2,500 each to three incumbent board members: Barbara Freiberg, David Tatman and Evelyn Ware-Jackson. Those contributions were made in December, and in Freiberg’s case, in February.

Grigsby supported those three board members in 2010 and will support their re-election effort, he said, and perhaps the re-election of one other board member, whom he wouldn’t name.

Grigsby in 2010 also supported Freeman, as well as board members Connie Bernard and Jill Dyason. Freeman is not running, so that leaves Bernard and Dyason.

Bernard said she is definitely running and hopes to have Grigsby’s support again. Unlike Grigsby, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber in 2010 supported two of her opponents. Bernard won her District 8 seat handily, winning in a field of four without having to go to a runoff.

Dyason, however, is still undecided about whether she is running for what would be her fourth term. In 2010, she was the lone incumbent the Baton Rouge Area Chamber supported.

Grigsby indicated he is lukewarm, at best, with his support for Dyason, noting that she had no opposition as she prepared for re-election four years ago.

Dyason said she supports “reform,” even though she’s been on the board for 13 years, but said experience is important and warns against getting rid of everyone in favor of new faces.

“I don’t know that all new board members are going to understand all of the issues,” she said.

She said the board also needs the voice of someone like her who understands the concerns of the supporters of the St. George incorporation effort, an effort that is seeking to create a new south Baton Rouge public school district as well.

“We can’t be discarding what a whole big segment of a community thinks,” she said.