Four years ago, the Jefferson Parish Public School System was in shambles. The previous school board had run up a $30 million deficit, nearly two-thirds of parish public schools were rated "D" or "F," and the system overall scored a "D" — making it one of the worst in the state.
Today, some of Jefferson's public schools rank among the best in the state. The $30 million deficit became a surplus large enough to give teachers a pay raise, Jefferson schools overall scored a "B" in the latest rankings, and the system is on track to become a national model for educational turnarounds.
It started with Jefferson Parish voters' decision in 2010 to elect five reform-minded school board members — barely enough for a majority of the nine-member board. In 2011, the new board named Jim Meza school superintendent — and let him do his job without political interference. Those decisions changed the landscape.
When the new board took office in 2011, fewer than 5,700 Jefferson Parish public school students attended schools rated "A" or "B." Today, more than 22,400 students attend "A" or "B" schools in Jefferson — more than in any other parish in Louisiana.
Improvement on the lower end of the scale has been equally dramatic. In 2011, more than 32,000 students in Jefferson attended "D" or "F" rated schools. Today, fewer than 9,000 attend such schools. That's still too many, but the trend is very positive.
Other statistics from the recent statewide rankings tell a similar story:
• Jefferson has 10 of Louisiana's top 25 schools.
• Jefferson's public high schools are in the state's Top 10 in graduation rates and students earning college-eligible ACT scores.
• Louisiana's best public elementary school and best public middle school are both in Jefferson Parish.
• The No. 2 and No. 3 public high schools are both in Jefferson Parish.
• Perhaps most profound of all, seven of Jefferson's 15 "A" schools have open admissions and serve students who largely come from poor communities. Two of those schools — Ella Dolhonde Elementary in Metairie and Leo E. Kerner Jr. Elementary in Lafitte — were rated "D" in 2011.
Improvements like those should make voters stand up and cheer, but for some reason they have displeased the Jefferson Federation of Teachers (JFT) and its national counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The teacher unions are backing candidates against the reformers in the Nov. 4 elections. The reformers are backed by business and civic leaders organized as the Committee for a Better Jefferson (CBJ).
The teachers union is so intent on ousting the reformers that the local union president herself is running against one incumbent. The AFT has poured nearly $450,000 into the local races — to convince voters to turn back the clock on progress.
Voters need to pay close attention. Here's a look at the candidates:
• District 1 board member Mark Morgan is unopposed.
• District 2 is a new minority district with no incumbent. Rickeem Jackson (son of former Saints player Ricky Jackson) has CBJ backing. Ricky Johnson is backed by the union. Also running is April Williams.
• District 3 incumbent Ray St. Pierre is backed by the union. His challenger, Ray Griffin Jr., is backed by the CBJ.
• District 4 incumbent Pat Tovrea decided not to seek re-election. The CBJ backs business owner Melinda Bourgeois; the union supports former teacher Glenn Mayeaux.
• District 5 incumbent Cedric Floyd has the union's backing. The CBJ backs Sharlayne Jackson-Prevost. Also running is former board member Karen Barnes.
• District 6 incumbent Larry Dale has the CBJ's backing. His opponent, Meladie Munch, is the local union president.
• District 7 incumbent Mark Jacobs is endorsed by the CBJ. Melinda Doucet has the union's support. Jo Ann Scott is also running.
• District 8 incumbent Mike Delesdernier has CBJ support. His opponent, Marion "Coach" Bonura is the union candidate.
• District 9 incumbent Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge is backed by the CBJ. Former board member Gene Katsanis, who lost to Denapolis-Bosarge in 2010, has the union's backing.
Education reform is not easy. Sustaining reforms can be even more difficult. Voters will decide Nov. 4 if they want the improvements to continue.