New money vs. old muscle in Louisiana school races

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Big money is being spent on some campaigns for this Saturday’s races for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education — unsalaried posts that usually draw far less attention at election time.

Candidates backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal or business interests or both are getting the bulk of the contributions. Some are featured in the kind of slickly produced commercials that usually appear in races for Congress or statewide office. The contest is pitting moneyed interests — who like what they’ve been seeing as charter schools take hold in New Orleans, teacher union influence diminishes and a decade-old school accountability program is refined — against the long-formidable political muscle of teacher unions, local school administrators and other education groups who say the changes have been unfair and too quickly embraced.

An example of the campaigns’ financial disparity: Going into the last campaign finance reporting period, District 1 challenger Lee Barrios reported raising $1,625, including $1,000 of her own money. She had about $750 on hand after expenditures. Another challenger for the post, Sharon Hewitt, was better off with total campaign receipts of more than $26,000 and $21,000 at the end of the period. But incumbent Jim Garvey of Metairie had more than $222,000 going into the period, received another $83,000-plus and still had $225,000 going into the campaign’s final weeks.

Email newsletter signup

Garvey is backed by, among others, Jindal and the Baton Rouge-based Alliance for Better Classrooms, led by conservative Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, as well as the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Hewitt, who, like Garvey is a Republican, has the endorsement of the Coalition for Louisiana Public Education, comprising teacher unions, school board and school superintendent groups and other education organizations critical of all or most of the education overhaul in the state. Barrios, too, has been critical of the changes.

What’s at stake?

There are 11 BESE seats. Three are filled by appointments by the governor. The other eight are elected by voters in districts around the state.

While the Legislature charts the course of education with laws, BESE and the state Department of Education implement the policies with rules and regulations. BESE, for instance recently adopted the practice of assigning letter grades to schools — a change embraced by the business-backed, self-styled reformers who say it’s a way of clearly demonstrating to parents which schools are failing. Critics deride the grading system as an overly simple and possibly misleading way of measuring schools with widely varying challenges and resources.

BESE also approves the person who serves as superintendent of education. That post was vacated in May by Paul Pastorek, an attorney who returned to more lucrative work in the private sector. Pastorek, a former BESE member, was long a supporter of the changes questioned by the Coalition. Jindal wants to replace him with John White, now head of the state agency that took over most New Orleans Schools after Hurricane Katrina.

But approval requires a two-thirds BESE vote and, despite his three appointments to the body, Jindal so far doesn’t have the votes.

The elections could shift power his way.

Jindal has not made endorsements in every race. And, while the races generally pit conservative business interests against labor-backed candidates, the dividing line between left and right can get blurry when it comes to education. For instance, White is not only backed by the conservative Republican governor; he also wins high praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, an appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama.

And the state’s only statewide elected Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu, is backing challenger Kira Orange Jones over incumbent Louella Givens. Jones and Givens are both Democrats in a largely Democratic New Orleans area district but Jones has the backing of the conservative Grigsby and other business interests. Jindal had not made an endorsement in that race as of Monday.

In southwestern Louisiana’s District 7, longtime incumbent Dale Bayard has opposed many of the state’s education charges over the years and is being attacked as a liberal in ABC PAC television commercials. However, he also has been a leader among social conservatives seeking to raise questions about the teaching of evolution.

His challenger, Holly Boffy, asked the group to withdraw its anti-Bayard ad. It refused.

“We are running on MY experience and MY credentials,” Boffy said in a statement emailed by Friends of Holly Boffy. “This commercial is directed at my opponent and since there are only two of us in the race, it leaves the impression that they are done either by our campaign or with our consent. … As a parent and an educator, I believe it is important to lead by example. The commercial is not the example I want my child or students to follow.”

Jay Connaughton, political consultant for ABC PAC, said, “We respect Holly Boffy. We think she’s a great candidate. We respect her request. We do not plan on pulling the ad, though. We think the voters deserve to know about her opponent’s record.”

The wish list for those who like the current track of education in the state would include incumbents Garvey, Glenny Lee Buquet in Houma based District 3 and Chas Roemer in the Baton Rouge area’s District 6, with challengers Boffy, Jones in District 2 and Jay Guillot in northeast Louisiana’s District 5. Walter Lee in District 4 is unopposed and has usually supported charters and the accountability system.

In District 8, where there is a vacancy, business interests appeared to be supportive of either Carolyn Hill or Russell Armstrong.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers union is backing Domoine Rutledge in District 8. In the other races, critics of the state takeovers, the move to charters and other aspects of the state accountability system hope either Barrios or Hewitt can defeat Garvey in District 1; that Givens can hold on to District 2; that newcomer Lottie Beebe can defeat Buquet in District 3; incumbent Keith Guice can hold of Guillot’s challenge in District 5; that either Elizabeth Myers or Donald Songy can knock off Roemer in District 6 and that Bayard can fend off Boffy in District 7.