Candidates for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will debate at Dillard University Wednesday, Oct. 5. The BESE elections — normally low-key affairs — have drawn increased attention this year because of the nascent and controversial charter school movement championed by leaders of the statewide Recovery School District (RSD). Proponents of charters cite increased parental choice and higher test scores; detractors have decried the "privatization" elements of charters and what some see as a push to get special-needs students out of the system. BESE candidates this year have generally been lumped into either the pro- or anti-charter category.
Brian Beabout, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans, says the races are so heated because the current BESE board is nearly evenly split. "The balance of power is pretty close. It's an 11-member board, and most significant decisions have gone 6-5 — with (Gov. Bobby) Jindal getting what he wants and the RSD getting what they want."
The BESE districts were redrawn during this year's legislative session in Baton Rouge. The new District 1, which covers most of the Northshore and some of Orleans Parish along the Lakefront, is currently represented by Metairie attorney Jim Garvey, who supports charters. His challengers are Lee Barrios, a retired educator from St. Tammany Parish, and Sharon Hewitt, an engineering manager for Shell Oil and longtime St. Tammany School System volunteer. Garvey and Hewitt are Republicans; Barrios is affiliated with no party.
District 2, which encompasses most of Orleans Parish as well as some of Jefferson, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James and Assumption Parishes, will be a faceoff between eight-year incumbent Louella Givens and challenger Kira Orange Jones, both Democrats. (Also on the ballot are Ferdinand Wallace Jr., a Democrat from Reserve, and Pam Matus of Laplace, who listed no party affiliation.)
Jones, a charter proponent, is the executive director of the New Orleans region of Teach For America, and has received a wide variety of endorsements, from Sen. Mary Landrieu to Jefferson Parish president John Young. Givens, a lawyer who is the current board's strongest voice against the charter school movement, has been roiled in recent weeks by reports in The Times-Picayune about a DWI arrest earlier this year and a $1.3 million IRS tax lien against her house. Givens told the paper both situations are misunderstandings. She has not returned repeated calls from Gambit.
The debate is open to the public and begins at 6:30 p.m. in Dillard's Professional Schools Building (enter through the university's St. Anthony Street gate). The fall primary election is Oct. 22, with the general election and any runoffs Nov. 19. — Kevin Allman