Tuesday is Election Day, and voters in Jefferson Parish will have an opportunity to decide who will represent them on the parish school board. Jefferson Parish has the largest school system in the state, with about 50,000 students. And the nine-member school board has been divided in recent years over the direction of the system.
New Orleans Advocate reporter Faimon Roberts has covered much of that tension. WWNO’s Jess Clark sat down with Roberts to talk about his reporting on the race.
Below is a Q & A based on their discussion. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: According to your reporting, in recent years, there have been basically two camps vying for control of the Jefferson Parish School board. What are those camps?
A: Those camps are the union-backed interests and the parish's business interests, which became more involved in the 2010 election cycle. In 2010 and 2014, these two camps waged expensive battles for school board seats.
Q: Why are these two camps pitted against each other - what do they disagree on?
A: Both would say they want the school system to improve - they disagree on how that should happen. The business community would like to see the central office shrink, they would like to see a friendliness to charter school proposals, they would like to see a very results-oriented approach. The teachers' union on the other hand wants to see a greater investment in teachers and in training. Jefferson Parish ranks low among metro-wide parishes in teacher pay and employee pay in general. And the teachers' union has a very vested interest in seeing that pay increase, and brought up to compete with St. John, St. Tammany, St. Charles, etc.
Q: How are these tensions between the business community and the teacher's union playing out in this election cycle?
A: The dynamic has shifted. The two interests still exist, and they are still opposed in some races. But in some races they are on the same side. For instance in District 1 and District 3 the Jefferson Federation of Teachers (the teachers' union) and the Jefferson Parish Chamber of Commerce PAC endorsed the same candidate. While those dynamics are still at play, they have been mitigated somewhat by the arrival of Superintendent Cade Brumley, who is at some level friendly to both interests.
Q: How has Brumley's arrival bridged that divide?
A: Brumley is very much a business-friendly superintendent. He presents very well, very professional. He has stressed a results-oriented approach and improving failing schools - these are all things that the business community has stressed that they need. At the same time, even before he was hired, he told the school system the problem here is in teacher pay, and we have to find a way to increase teacher pay to make it so teachers are less tempted to jump to other parishes.
Q: In Jefferson Parish there are nine school board districts, and each district will elect its own representative. There are a lot of candidates, so let's talk about the most hotly contested races. What's going on in District 1?
A: District 1 may be the most intense race in the entire parish. It pits incumbent and school board president Mark Morgan against longtime educator Gerard LeBlanc. Morgan is the more well-funded candidate, and he also has the endorsement of the teachers' union and the Chamber PAC. LeBlanc is a longtime educator, he's well-known in Gretna. He's been in the system, he teaches teachers right now at Holy Cross. And so he's a guy with a lot of education bonafides that I think a lot of people are going to look at in the race.
Q: We've talked about what the Jefferson Federation of Teachers wants, we've talked about what the Chamber wants. Have you talked to voters? What's at stake for them in this election?
A: I think what you have within the school system is a wide disparity. You have some schools that are really great in Jefferson Parish, but you also have schools that are really, really struggling. And so you have this perception of the disparity, and I think what parents and grandparents and people who are involved in the system want to see is those struggling schools brought up to a level where they're more competitive.