Voters get to hear from school board candidates at One Acadiana forum

Candidates vying to represent Lafayette’s education interests were on the hot seat at a community forum Monday night, answering questions about dual enrollment availability, trust in the school board and improvement in the district’s Transformation Zone.

The 13 candidates running for the five contested seats on the Lafayette Parish School Board were each given a single question, plus an introduction, to make a winning impression on the audience at the Acadiana Center for the Arts and viewers watching from home.

The candidates took the questions posed by Pearson Cross, associate dean of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette College of Liberal Arts, and used the opportunity to weave in their platform ideas, including increased transparency and improved access to early childhood education.

The four candidates from District 2 were a prime example when questioned about ensuring dual enrollment access and offering support during the high school to college transition.

Incumbent Tommy Angelle stressed the importance of expanding pre-K and Head Start programs to ensure students are on grade-level and can take advantage of those advancement opportunities in high school.

Candidate Wendy Baudoin called for increased funding for vocational and technical education programs to provide diverse opportunities to students. It’s important to recognize some students prefer entering the workforce over attending college and to prepare them accordingly, she said.

District 2 challenger Breyone Carter connected the availability of dual enrollment to the idea of educational equity and ensuring every child can earn the credits with the district’s limited budget. Carter called for community partners to support grant opportunities to fund the credit programs.

Stasia Herbert-McZeal suggested finding creative ways to support these programs without straining the budget, such as expanding partnerships with local higher education entities, like South Louisiana Community College.

The forum was hosted by One Acadiana, the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Coalition and the705 to get residents familiar with the candidates ahead of the Oct. 12 election. Each group drafted one of the evening’s questions.

The biggest question of the night hinged on trust. Emcee Pearson Cross reflected on a 2017 tax proposed by the school system that failed decidedly at the polls. Despite playing such a crucial role in the parish’s current and future economy, the school system couldn’t garner support for a new tax to fund critical facility needs.

Cross pointed out that voter analysis points to less than 100 teachers supporting the tax and he questioned what can be done to turn the tide. The candidates from Districts 4 and 7 had different assessments.

Tehmi Chassion, the incumbent District 4 board member, said he believes Lafayette Parish currently operates under an anti-tax climate, and a tax failure isn’t indicative of the community’s belief in the school board. The support is there, and board members need to continue building relationships, he said.

“It’s understanding where we live and the economics of where we live. I think we do have community support…however, if you’re going to link a tax to if we have support, I don’t think that’s a good notion,” Chassion said.

His opponent, Erica Williams, disagreed. She said more value needs to be placed on the input of teachers and more needs to be done to develop buy-in from internal stakeholders. Without their support, it’s impossible to bring a tax or larger plan to the public, she said.

“Trust and transparency have to be gained, and not forced, and I think on the school board it’s up to us to make sure we gain the trust of our communities, starting with our internal stakeholders first,” Williams said.

Former educator Eva Green, who’s running in District 7, said when she was a teacher in Lafayette Parish taxes were passed successfully, but over time constituents felt the money disappeared without adequate explanation. She called for greater transparency and for the board to be proactive in addressing the public.

“I don’t think the community has a lot of faith in the board at this time,” Green said.

Green’s challenger, Kate Bailey Labue, suggested the board develop and execute a strategic communication plan. Labue said the public needs to better understand the district’s strengths and the progress being made.

“I think what the community fails to hear are the successes and I think that’s where the school system and the school board need to step up,” Labue said.

The candidates from District 8 and District 9 closed out the evening, addressing the achievement gap and other needs at the district’s persistently struggling schools.

District 8 candidate Diana Lennon cited the need for expanded early childhood education and called on the school board to better solicit feedback from stakeholders inside and outside the school system to develop solutions.

Her competitor, Hannah Smith Mason, said for her it all comes back to increasing supports for teachers in the classroom. Mason suggested the district capitalize on the recent movement in support of Lafayette’s public schools to get more resources into the classroom.

In the District 9 group, former superintendent Donald Aguillard encouraged the district to keep its foot on the gas and continue pressing forward with initiatives like Tier 1 curriculum implementation, master teachers and professional development for teachers. Sustainable change takes time, he said.

Candidate Hubert Gauthier said for him it all comes down to the needs of each student. While many of the students in the district’s Transformation Zone schools are low-income, their learning struggles are also shaped by many personal circumstances. Identifying those is key to improvement, he said.

The final contender, Diogo Tavares, recommended a variety of solutions, including better educating parents to help them support their children, bringing in assistance to allow teachers more time to focus on struggling pupils, and capitalizing on community and business resources.

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