School board candidates address issues

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 29, 2010

By David Vitrano


LAPLACE – Voters who live in St. John the Baptist Parish School Board District 8 will go to the polls Tuesday to decide who will be their School Board representative. It is the only local runoff race in the River Parishes.

The race pits incumbent Russ Wise against school system veteran Beverly Harris.

Wise has served on the St. John School Board for 12 years. Harris has worked as an educator in the St. John school system for 43 years.

L’Observateur recently asked each candidate for their take on five topics. Here is what they had to say.

L’Observateur: The St. John the Baptist Parish public school system will likely face an even larger budget deficit for the next fiscal year than it did for the current year. What do you propose should be done to help alleviate this problem?

Beverly Harris: To alleviate this problem we should examine and review all line items and eliminate those that will have the least impact on the educational growth and development of the students.

Russ Wise: The options now available to us are very limited. I would oppose any cuts that would negatively affect teaching and learning. Before we make any other cuts, the School Board should cut its own pay first. I have proposed cutting School Board pay two times and plan to try at least once more regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election. As things stand now the School Board has voted to cut everyone’s pay but its own.

But before we even consider cutting our own spending any further we must work to restore what has been unfairly taken away from us. As a newly appointed member of the Legislative Committee of the Louisiana School Boards Association I will lobby in Baton Rouge to reverse recent cuts in state support for education (one of the main contributors to our shortfall) and demand that the state fully fund its retirement systems. A few years ago the Legislature let the retirement systems speculate in the stock market. When the market crashed the state ordered local school boards to make up the shortfall with our money, an order that forces us to take $1.5 million out of our classrooms every year, for the foreseeable future.

LOB: Test scores in the parish, while on the rise, could be better. What do you think could be done to raise scores more quickly?

BH: There is no quick fix. The schools must bring community resources together to create and provide smaller building blocks for a firm foundation in efforts to achieve overall greater success. It is a step-by-step building process.

RW: I think the question is a bad one; it presumes that Superintendent Millet, our principals and our teachers are failing their students when the exact opposite is true. Look at the most recent statistics: every school in the parish showed significant improvement in test scores this year. Just two weeks ago the Louisiana Department of Education announced that we were one of the most improved school systems in the state. Our fourth-graders, who have benefited most from Dr. Millet’s reforms, have higher LEAP test scores than our eighth-graders, and our eighth-graders have scored higher than our high school students, partly because they have had only a few years to benefit from the reforms.

To directly answer the specific question you ask, I doubt that anyone anywhere in America could do more to raise test scores more quickly than St. John Parish Public Schools are currently doing.

LOB: Truancy and low graduation rates have been a problem not only here in St. John but across the state. What do you think are the causes of this and how can it be stemmed?

BH: These students do not value or view the importance of education. We need to provide every opportunity in the classroom as well as extracurricular activities to create and maintain interest in school. A need for more parental involvement is necessary.

There is an absence of cooperation between the schools and businesses employing students. There needs to be a cooperative agreement between schools and businesses to foster school attendance and academic achievement in order to promote the advantages of a sound education.

RW: To blame schools for failing to prevent dropouts is like blaming your doctor for failing to prevent a smoker’s lung cancer. At some point people must accept responsibility for their own failures. Being in seventh grade when you’re 17 years old is rarely the teacher’s fault. Principals can’t force people to stay in school when they’re intent upon leaving. Only parents can do that. Only parents can control whether students do their homework or study for tests. Teachers can’t send kindergarteners to school not being able to count to 10 or without knowing their ABCs.

St. John Public Schools already offers Headstart and other pre-kindergarten programs at some schools. Next fall we will initiate Universal Pre-K, which offers training for kids as young as 4 to help combat the problem. But the problem doesn’t originate at school. Parents or other adults must play their part in the process of education.

LOB: What changes would you like to see made to operational procedures that could help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of St. John’s public schools as centers for learning?

BH: The three institutions that made America great are home, church, and school. These institutions must cooperate on problem areas affecting educational growth and development of children. An aggressive contract should be created with parent, teacher and student to hold all accountable.

RW: I have already begun working with the Superintendent on two major projects — revising our vocational education program to make it more relevant to today’s job market and raising the bar to better serve the best and the brightest of St. John’s academic spectrum. We now have a program that allows vocational students to enroll at the Louisiana Technical College in Reserve, where they can now earn dual credits. We also have more than 30 dual-enrollment or advanced-placement honors classes where students can earn college credits and high school credit at the same time. I am pushing for a separate vocational high school where even mandatory classes like math, science and English can be taught with a vocational emphasis, and for the creation of an advanced studies academy allowing high achieving high school students to earn enough college credit in high school to start college at the sophomore level.

LOB: What else do you want the voters to know?

BH: Take interest in our educational system in efforts to make our community stronger. Education is from the cradle to the grave. Please come out and vote on Nov. 2 for Beverly Dinvaut Harris, No. 88 on the ballot.

RW: For more than 10 years I have worked to remove politics from the local school system and to hold educators accountable for what they do. I initiated the requirement that we hire a professional search firm to help us choose our next superintendent, a process that clearly showed Dr. Millet to be the best person for the job. Prior to that we had chosen our superintendents based upon the number of friends they had on the School Board. Teachers, principals, even janitors and bus drivers, are hired on the basis of what they can do rather than whom they know. The results are clearly evident (see the answer to Question 2 above). I have been the only School Board member to oppose handing unearned bonuses to employees, which cost you more than $1.5 million of your tax dollars. In the time since I joined the Board we have earned the best bond rating in the State of Louisiana; we have raised teacher pay to the top 10 in the state; our high school graduates earn millions of dollars in academic as well as athletic scholarship annually. We are in the process of $46 million worth of school construction and renovation — and it didn’t cost a single penny in new taxes.

My opponent says it’s time for a change. My question to you is, “Why? What can she do that I can’t or already haven’t?”