Candidate forum poses important questions for the future of our school district

Published 3:20 am Saturday, October 22, 2022

“This election is too important to not vet our candidates. Our businesses need this to grow and survive.”

Those words from St. John Parish Business Association President Deborah Brown opened a two-night forum for St. John the Baptist Parish School Board candidates. Her words rang true — a high-performing school system is key to a community’s growth, especially when it comes to attracting families and businesses.

U.S. Census results show that St. John Parish is not growing the way it should be. A large part of this is transiency related to flooding from natural disasters, but the school system is just as much of a factor when you look at the performance scores of our neighboring parishes compared to St. John. When families can move 20 minutes down Airline Highway to feel more confident about their child’s education, what is motivating them to invest in St. John Parish?

The St. John Parish Business Association did an excellent job of hosting this week’s candidate forum, which was split across two nights to allow adequate time for candidates to answer an insightful list of questions.

Candidates started out explaining a School Board’s roles and responsibilities, which legally include selecting and evaluating a superintendent, adopting a balanced budget and ensuring policies are in compliance with the law. Candidates shared that these responsibilities should include a commitment to be actively involved in the schools, hold the superintendent accountable, and provide support where needed.

Candidates were asked to share their vision for education in this community. More specifically, they were asked how they plan to engage the community to improve public schools, how to address underperforming schools, and to identify the educational strengths and weaknesses in their respective districts.

The District Six candidates identified a rapidly growing Hispanic population as highlighting diversity (a strength) and lack of communication with parents due to language barriers (a weakness of the school district).

Another factor viewed as both a strength and a weakness was local industry. While the companies along the river are by far the biggest generators of tax dollars in our parish, ITEP and PILOT agreements offering tax-break incentives keep schools from realizing the full potential of this economic impact. I agreed with the idea that we aren’t using our industry partners to the fullest extent in job shadowing and classroom teaching opportunities. The facilities that exist in our parish would make great field trip destinations for career training programs in local high schools.

Communication and transparency will always be vital to a school system’s level of trust within the community. I agreed with board members who said the district should do a better job of “tooting its own horn” by showcasing what we our doing well. From innovative programs preparing students for life after high school to kids who score a 30+ on the ACT, there are stories that show success is attainable within our school system.

I also agree with the candidates who said the district has dragged its feet on coming up with a strategic plan. As candidate Patricia Triche stated, “our weakness is that we don’t even know what are weaknesses are.” Candidate Jennifer Frizzell called for more transparency in the results of school surveys. “If you don’t have a goal and know how you are measuring it, how do you know you are getting there?” she asked.

Candidate Georgia Keller spoke about engaging the community by encouraging healthy competition between schools and offering incentives to engage parents.

Beyond cultivating a wide range of academic and extracurricular activities, I believe a school system requires parental involvement to function properly. A school board, superintendent, principals and teachers can all do their job, but at the end of the day, students return to their homes. Parents need to be active participants in the district to set an example for their children that prioritizes learning.

Early voting will be held October 25 through November 1, leading up to Election Day on November 8. Now is the time to make your voices heard for the future of our schools and our community.

 

Brooke R. Cantrelle is news editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. She can be reached at brooke.robichaux@lobseravteur.com.