While a number of statewide races are on the Oct. 12 ballot, there are none more important to the residents of Orleans Parish than the District 1 and District 2 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education contests to determine who will speak for the people of this city on the state’s top education policy making board.

Retired educator and education advocate Lee Price Barrios and Marion Bonura are challenging BESE District 1 incumbent James “Jim” Garvey in the race. BESE District 1 includes all of St. Tammany Parish, as well as sections of Orleans and Jefferson parishes.

Meanwhile, attorney Shawon Bernard and former school principal Ashonta Wyatt are both vying to replace Kira Orange Jones, who qualified to hold on to the BESE District 2. BESE District 2 captures all of St. James, St. John and St. Charles parishes, along with significant areas of Orleans, Jefferson and Assumption parishes.

Both Garvey and Orange Jones have easily held on to their seats in the past thanks to the devil-may-care (cheerfully reckless, to be sure) attitude regarding public education that nearly every elected official in the state has adopted, along with unprecedented and obscene amounts of out-of-state contributions (from the likes of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the Broad Foundation to the Walton Foundation) that have influenced state education politics. 

Garvey and Orange Jones have, unquestionably, worked on the behalf of the corporate-backed, fake reform movement. 

But what have they done for the communities they were elected to serve?

Maybe that’s a question that students with special education needs and their parents would like to answer. 

The story of New Orleans father Dennis Lewis and his losing battle to get charter schools in Orleans Parish to provide his daughter Danesha, who was diagnosed with ADHD, with the special education services she needed recently made headlines in the local daily. According to Lewis’ account as told by the newspaper, his daughter could not even count money as she entered the 12th grade. She was promoted, but received little attention to her special needs. She graduated in 2018 thanks to a loophole in the state law that allows students receiving special education services to get a diploma without passing mandated tests. School officials only started to give Danesha the services she needed in earnest during her senior year; and speculatively, only then to make her eligible for graduation loophole.

This one example should be enough, but there are hundreds of other parents like Lewis and students Danesha. How much more statistical and anecdotal evidence is needed before BESE does something about charter schools in Orleans that are failing to meet the needs of all students?

Perhaps the 87 John F. Kennedy seniors whose futures are in jeopardy because of the curriculum/testing/grade-fixing/who-knows-what-else-has-been-going-on-over-there scandal could share their thoughts on that question.

Again, what have Kira Orange Jones and Jim Garvey done for the parents and students they were elected to serve?

Why BESE Matters Most

Our schools are no better than they were in 2005. In fact, without accountability or real choice or local governance, they are worse. 

Based on the state’s 2018 school performance data, 58 of 74 New Orleans public schools earned letter grades of C, D or F; and 28 schools had a SPS of 60 or below–scores that would have gotten taken over by the state before Hurricane Katrina. In fact, based on the 2018 SPS data, only six of 74 schools earned an SPS score of 87.4 or better in the 2018 SPS assessment. The rest of the lot—68 schools—earned less than 87.4, and would have been considered failing even before Katrina.

Our children have suffered for too long, and it will take new, dedicated leadership to bring that suffering to an end. It will take voices and votes on BESE to boldly challenge its current direction.

If the people of New Orleans want change, Oct. 12 is our opportunity. Voters who want a school system that offers students a valuable education and one that prepares them for a career path, college or vocation, must demand that candidates explain what they will do to achieve real and meaningful education reform. 

Our schools are no better than they were in 2005. In fact, without accountability or real choice, they are worse. Our children have suffered for too long, and it will take new, dedicated leadership to bring that suffering to an end. It will take voices and votes on BESE to boldy challenge its current direction.

The New Orleans Tribune’s history of pushing back against the dismantling of public education is well-documented in its pages. We make zero apologies for it. For that reason, we cannot send Kira Orange Jones and/or Jim Garvey back to BESE. It would be the same as rubber-stamping the status quo. 

It is time for a change.  

For New Orleanians, BESE is, in many ways, the only elected body that matters as our schools remain operated by quasi-private charter organizations that have repeatedly proven they are accountable to no one here.

And as such, those who represent us on BESE must be accountable and responsive to the parents, students, voters and taxpayers of Orleans Parish and not special interests, the so-called reform advocates, nor the big-money corporations that have already pillaged our schools. History has shown us that the current District 1 and District 2 BESE members are not the right representatives for our community. 

We have met with Barrios and have closely followed her advocacy work on behalf of Louisiana parents and students. We also know the work of District 2 candidate and attorney Shawon Bernard. She has challenged the RSD and BESE in court as evidence of her advocacy on behalf of the people of this community. And we believe  that Ashonta Wyatt possesses the sort of forthright leadership we need based on her willingness to publicly challenge financial misdeeds she witnessed by the board of the very school where she served as principal, even at the risk of losing her job. 

These two races are the most crucial elections that Orleans voters will decide upon because the fate of the state’s children, families, and educational and economic justice is in the hands of the BESE members.

BESE has failed Louisiana students, especially here in New Orleans. And that means incumbents Jim Garvey and Kira Orange Jones need to be replaced. 

The plain fact is that BESE, along with our state legislature (we haven’t forgotten its roles in the dismantling of public education) sold New Orleans and its children out to the well-connected so that their friends and financial backers could open charter schools, start organizations, get selected to boards, award contracts,  and make money off of the backs of our students.

The irony of it all, of course, is that many of those responsible for the current state of public education in New Orleans or those close to them are enjoying the spoils of their pilfering and plundering of our schools while our children suffer. 

The fact that Leslie Jacobs, a former BESE and OPSB member—the self-appointed “architect of accountability”, has fashioned a system that is not accountable to the people it serves is particularly galling. 

Jacobs is a wealthy former insurance executive who uses PACs to make contributions to BESE candidates. Jacob’s PACs have also made contributions to numerous Black politicians, who authored and/or voted on legislation to takeover Orleans Parish Schools, ultimately making the system the first all-charter school district in the nation, which means there is no school choice.

Public school dollars are being used by charter schools that are not accountable to voters. Orleans Parish schools are as segregated as ever and the elected Orleans Parish School Board is a BESE cut-out that is only pretending to have power.

The “transfer” of the Recovery School District schools back to the OPSB in 2018 was a sham as the very law outlining the “return” to local control mandated that the charters would retain autonomy over its operations.

OPSB’s Superintendent Henderson Lewis seems only too happy to earn a $250,000 paycheck, while students are being bussed all over town, fed an unverifiable curriculum and subjected to outrageously expensive high-stakes tests that are not preparing them for successful college or vocational careers. 

We have been stuck with education leaders that don’t want to lead. By the way, after all that has happened at Kennedy, Henderson can’t wait to turn the campus over to another charter operator. 

And we can’t wait until the 2020 OPSB school board elections. The first thing we will be looking for are candidates who will not be afraid to challenge the status quo and to hire a superintendent equally as brave if they are elected.

More on the Ballot

BESE is important. Of course, it’s not the only ballot item Oct. 12 primary. More to the point, there are candidates seeking other offices that have a significant impact on public education.

Gov. John Bel Edwards faces competition from five candidates, after three other candidates withdrew or were disqialified. Republicans and Trump-supporters Dr. Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone, and Patrick Doguet, Patrick Landry, and Manuel Leach, also Republicans, are betting that Louisiana’s ‘Red State’ designation will put one of them in the Governor’s mansion. 

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser also attracted contenders in the battle to hold on to his seat. New Orleans Democrat Willie Jones and Rao M. Uppo, a Democrat from Prairieville qualified for the race.

Gwen Collins-Greenup, the Clinton Democrat who made a surprise showing in the 2018 special primary election for the Secretary of State seat by coming in as a close second in the crowded field of nine candidates and landing a runoff spot in the general election against Kyle Ardoin, is challenging him for the seat along with two other candidates.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, faces competition from Ike Jackson Jr., a Democrat from Plaquemines. Landry hopes voters will forget that as the top law enforcement officer for the state, last year he opposed changing the 120-year-old Louisiana law that allowed juries to convict or acquit defendants even if two jurors dissented. But we haven’t.

To see a full list of candidates in the state-wide races, visit the secretary of state’s election division at geauxvote.com.

The Louisiana Legislature

Two term-limited state representatives, State Rep. Joe Bouie (D-99) and State Rep. John H. Bagneris (D-97) are vying for promotion to the State Senate in the District 3 race, which also drew two other candidates–Arabi Republican Kathleen Doody and New Orleans Democrat Brandon Gregoire.

Meanwhile state Rep. Jimmy Harris (D-99) will become state senator for the 4th senatorial district after drawing no other challengers. State Sen. Troy Carter will also continue to represent the 7th senatorial district because no one qualified to run against him by the Aug. 8 deadline.

New Orleans Democrat Allen Borne Jr. is challenging state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who represents the 5th District. Many in the New Orleans Black community have given Peterson the side-eye for co-authoring the legislation that stripped power from the Orleans Parish School Board and paved the way for the failed charter school system now in place. 

State Reps. Royce Duplessis (D-93) and Gary Carter Jr. (D-102) were unchallenged. Likewise, state Rep. Ray Garofalo (D-103) won by default.

The 91st, 94th, 97th, 98th, 99th, 100th and 105th state representative races drew at least two qualifiers each.

For a complete list of races and candidates, visit geauxvote.com.

The September 2019 issue of The New Orleans Tribune will feature candidate profiles. And don’t forget to watch our video interviews with candidates  on Facebook before the election, as well.

Sept.11, 2019 is the last day to register in person or by mail in order to vote in the Oct. 12 primary. Registration continues online through the Secretary of State’s website (geauxvote.com) through Sept. 21. 

The deadline to request a mail ballot is Oct. 8, 2019 and the Registrar of Voters must receive completed ballots from voters no later than Oct.11, 2019. Early voting for the Oct. 12th primary is Sept. 28 – Oct. 5, 2019 (except Sundays). Elections for races that require runoffs will take place Nov. 16, 2019.

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