Cajundome Director Greg Davis was first in line last Wednesday morning to qualify for the October school board election. He paid the $115 fee — Davis has no party affiliation; Republicans and Democrats pay $230, half of which goes to their party — filled out the paperwork and left. After months of speculation, Davis’ candidacy surprised many in the community; as late as Tuesday evening the editorial board at The Independent heard that Davis had decided not run.
The 55-year-old has had a sometimes adversarial relationship with the school system going back to his days as chairman of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and most recently as chairman (he has since resigned) of the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council. So for Davis, running for school board is kind of like wading into a pool of piranhas. But a quarter century facing the public’s teeth as Cajundome director has given him a thick skin.
“I’ve gotten my feet wet over here at the Cajundome; I’ve had many political attacks, so I realize that’s what politics is, and I have a realistic view of what I’m getting into, and yes I’m ready for it,” Davis says. “And the reason I’m ready for it is because of the many, many kids that we are failing. So I plan to be an advocate for the kids. And what I’ll be going through compared to what they’re going through is nothing.”
About 24 hours after Davis qualified for the District 2 seat being vacated by four-term incumbent and current board President Carl LaCombe, political veteran Tommy Angelle threw his hat into the ring. Angelle served six terms as Carencro mayor, 1978-2002, following a single term as an alderman. He says his interest in the school board seat goes back to his first career as a teacher and administrator in public schools in north Lafayette Parish.
“Being a former school teacher, I’m still very interested in the education of our kids,” Angelle says.
The 64-year-old points to the oft-cited issue of parental involvement as critical to the success of our school system: “I think there’s too many times the kids are pretty much left on their own once they leave the school. I’d like to see more involvement with the school, more involvement with reading,” Angelle adds. “I don’t think you’ll ever get 100 percent of anything, but that would certainly be one of my goals, to get the parents more involved with the education of their children.”
A retired Lafayette teacher and principal, Gwen Harris, 69, hopes to fill the void created in District 4 by the retirement of longtime board member Ed Sam. She comes at the issue of parental involvement from a different angle. “I don’t think any parent stands back and smiles because his child is doing poorly,” Harris says. “We as educators need to hold hands with the parents and say, ‘Look, this is what we need to do to help you,’ or, ‘What can I do to help you?’ I know we have tutorial programs going on after school, but my God, some of these parents, father and mother, are working from 8 in the morning to 6 in the afternoon and they have to come home, and some of them don’t understand the academics that are taught nowadays. We have to help the parents. I don’t think that we have a community of sluggish, non-caring parents.”
Harris will face 29-year-old pharmacist intern Tehmi Chassion, a Northside High and LSU graduate. Chassion is completing a doctorate in pharmacy, but he has the school board in his blood: his late father, Tony, was the first black elected to the board.
“We have the highest of the lows and the lowest of the highs all around the board compared to everywhere else in Lafayette Parish,” Chassion says of the district where he grew up. “We have the highest expulsion rate, the highest suspension rate, the lowest GPAs, the lowest ACTs and SAT scores.”
Tehmi Chassion, a 29-year-old pharmacist intern,
Chassion believes the entire community shares the burden and the blame for the historically poor performance of schools in District 4. “Everybody needs to be held responsible, everybody from parents, teachers, students, administrators, ministers, preachers, churches,” he insists. “The thing about it is, everyone is aware, but it’s an afterthought nowadays, like, well the scores are going to come back, we hope they’re going to be better. We might get a slight improvement, but a slight improvement from an F to an F+ is not something to raise the flag about and cheer.”
In District 5, left open by the retirement of Mike Hefner, funeral director and retired teacher Kermit Bouillon, who made an unsuccessful bid for the seat against Hefner in 1998, is back for round two. “I’m very close to education in my heart; all my daughters graduated from the public school system ... they have successful careers,” Bouillon says. “So, I just can’t say enough about what an education can do for an individual, and I’d like to be involved with the policy making of education in Lafayette Parish.”
Bouillon, 59 and a Republican, says he’ll bring a no-tax and spendthrift attitude to the board. “I think we’re overtaxed as it is, and I think that’s going to be a big, big deal for the voters of Lafayette Parish,” he says, referring to the tax proposition for facilities the board is likely to bring before voters within the next several months. “I just think it’s crazy to bring that issue up at this time, with the state of Louisiana’s economy.”
Bouillon will compete for the seat against former school board rep June Andres as well as Dean Landry, neither of whom could be reached by deadline for this story.
Three of the six incumbents on the board — Mark Babineaux (District 1), Shelton Cobb (3), and Rae Trahan (9) — are unopposed in the October election.
Greg Awbrey in District 6 will face financial planner Dudley LaBauve III, a political newcomer and product of the Lafayette Parish public school system.
“I have an interest in bringing some business knowledge and business practice and trying to apply it to the school board and to the school system as much as possible,” LaBauve says. The 38-year-old adds that he embraces the “superintendent as chief executive” model of school system governance: “I hope that we can change the culture of the school board and try to operate it more like a business, as much as possible, and empower the superintendent to run it as a CEO, and also empower the principals and the faculty and operate more efficiently.”
District 7 incumbent Mark Cockerham will square off against Thomas Brown, who qualified late Friday for the race. A Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star, Brown is currently principal at Immaculate Heart of Mary School and spent more than 30 years in the Lafayette public school system as a classroom teacher and principal, most recently at Broussard Middle School. Brown has been active in Lafayette’s civic life, having served on the boards of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, Festival International de Louisiane and the Cajundome.
“I’ve always been service-oriented,” Brown says of his motivation for qualifying. “I have three grandchildren who are in the public school system, and I would like to see the system improve as much as it possibly can.” The 63-year-old cites addressing Lafayette’s schools in decline as a chief challenge facing the system.
In District 8, Hunter Beasley will seek re-election against the only active teacher among the hopefuls, 26-year-old Arlecia Hill, a 3rd grade teacher at Plantation Elementary.
“I have a need to lead,” Hill says. “I want to be able to effect change for kids and parents. I think that we’re not taking care of the village anymore, and I’d like to bring the village back to where we’re taking care of the kids, getting the parents involved in school and making sure that the school board is communicating with the teachers as well.”
LaBauve, the District 6 candidate, believes Lafayette’s district performance score should be commensurate with the parish’s population — in the top five in the state.
Davis is setting his sights even higher — unrealistically high, some might say. “The goal I believe should be 95 percent graduation rates with 95 percent grade-level performance, and with our school system moving to No. 1 in the state,” Davis says. “I think that our expectations should be equal to our uniqueness as a city, and I think that for years that has been out of balance. We have had low expectations.”
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