In an unprecedented move, the Northshore Business Council is diving into the Nov. 8 St. The Tammany Parish School Board is hiring a political consultant and sending a letter to chronic voters last week that points to a sharp drop in the school district’s rankings and lists candidates who have said they will support the business group’s school improvement menu.
“There was a time when St. Tammany stood out among every school district in Louisiana. But not anymore,” the front of the letter said, noting the area’s drop from No. 4 in 2010 to No. 18 in 2019.
“It’s our job to fix the problem,” says the dispatcher.
Don’t just complain
Taking on such a role in an election is a first for the influential organization of CEOs and chief executives of more than 60 North Shore companies, acknowledged Ross Lagarde, a lawyer and the group’s chairman. But he predicts it won’t be the last, he said.
“The business council needs to step up and proactively try to correct the problem because we are supposed to be the business leaders of the parish,” Lagarde said Friday. “We have to do something other than complain. If we want change, we have to do something.”
The council is not the first business group to turn to the ballot box to address education issues. In 2010, business leaders in Jefferson Parish fielded a slate of candidates — and elected them, though four years later the teachers union managed to reverse the results.
Lagarde said the Northshore Business Council knows that story and why their colleagues in Jefferson Parish took action.
“We decided we should do the same,” he said, even though the Northshore Business Council did not nominate or endorse any candidates in the election.
The Post also notes that 45 percent of parish tax dollars in St. Tammany go to public schools, making the district one of the best-funded in the state. “But today our results and schools are falling behind,” it said.
A pledge of support
The post follows a study of schools in St. Tammany, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes that the board commissioned from the Center for Business Research at Southeastern Louisiana University.
The survey was sent to all St. Tammany school board candidates along with a request to pledge support for a list of goals to improve educational outcomes. These include improving literacy and remediating learning loss, increased accountability and transparency for financial and educational outcomes, improving facilities, and promoting parental choice and opportunity—probably the most controversial issue on the list.
Candidates don’t have to agree with every goal listed, he said, but the board seeks agreement with a substantial majority of them.
Of the 36 candidates running for 12 open seats on the 15-member School Board, only 15 are listed in the letter as supporting the pledge. In three races – for districts 4, 5 and 8 – none of the contestants registered. Only one of the races, District 2, has all candidates listed for support.
While the Northshore Business Council has increased its visibility, the chamber’s PAC of St. Tammany decided not to make endorsements when nearly 40 applicants qualified, chamber executive director Lacey Osborne said.
But the Chamber posted a series of interviews with candidates on YouTube that it said received traffic.
New blood is coming
The chamber is also signing its support for statewide accountability overhaul after a chamber board meeting this week. In an email to members, Osborne cited statements from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry that said the current accountability system masks failure with most high schools labeled A or B schools despite the state’s overall low ranking in educational outcomes.
“The school board was off our radar because we were doing so well, rated third or fourth. We’re not now,” Osborne said. “There is new blood coming in and we need to build relationships with some of the new school board members and communicate the importance of workforce development.”
Lagarde agreed and said that the superintendent of schools, St. Tammany Frank Jabbia has not receded from the issue in discussions with the Business Council.
“People moved here because historically we had one of the best public school systems, so they left the surrounding areas and moved here, and now we’re slipping,” Lagarde said.