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High Stakes for Jefferson Parish

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School board runoff elections could determine future of Louisiana’s largest school district

Last month the Pelican Institute highlighted the unusual role a national union was playing in the Jefferson Parish School Board elections. The American Federation of Teachers has spent nearly half a million dollars on these local elections, backing candidates that would likely overturn recent reforms that have proven so successful. Now, with two runoff elections approaching, it is worth considering the impact these outcomes will have on Jefferson schools.

The makeup of the School Board is divided between members backed by unions and those backed by business leaders in favor of reform. The reformers have been operating with a one-vote majority, making it possible to expand educational options, close failing schools and allocate resources more effectively.

These reforms have produced results: The District Performance Score for Jefferson Parish schools was 84.9 in 2010, whereas its score in 2013 was 101.4. In 2010, Jefferson ranked 51st out of 74 school districts in Louisiana, while in 2013 it had moved up to 37th. More than three times as many students were attending A or B rated schools in 2013 as compared to 2010. The rate of Jefferson Parish students attending schools ranked A, B, or C-level, has increased from 35 to 81 percent. Average ACT score, graduation rates, and LEAP and iLEAP scores at every grade level have all improved at a rate above the state average.

Notwithstanding these positive outcomes, the national union’s influx of cash helped produce mixed results in the November election, including two runoffs that will be held this Saturday, December 6th.

In the 2nd District, which includes parts of Gretna, Harvey, and Marrero, business-backed Rickeem Jackson faces off against union-backed Ricky Johnson. In the 7th District, union-backed Melinda Doucet will face off against incumbent and reformer Mark Jacobs. District 7 includes Harahan, Bridge City, River Ridge and parts of Avondale, Kenner and Metairie.

One of the hot-button issues that will be addressed by the next board is that of collective bargaining. By electing to reject an agreement with the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, the School Board was able to offer individual contracts to teachers. Increased flexibility has allowed Superintendant James Meza and the School Board to make schools more autonomous, innovative and accountable. It also made it possible to prioritize the needs of students and parents over the demands of the union.

This flexibility has also facilitated better use of taxpayer dollars. In 2010, the Jefferson Parish schools were facing a deficit of $25 million. They were able to eliminate that deficit by making rational decisions like eliminating 150 central office administration positions and closing seven under-performing and under-enrolled schools. They have been able to deliver a balanced budget over the past two years and give teachers a raise.

While it may be advantageous to continue without a collective bargaining agreement, any possible agreements in the future should require transparency in the negotiating process. Many of these agreements are struck between unions and school boards in secret meetings, the details of which are not revealed to taxpayers or parents until it is too late.

Efforts have been made in the legislature to ensure collective bargaining sessions between unions and public employees would be a matter of public record, as currently they are exempt from the Open Meetings Law. Any and all documents considered or created during these meetings should be a matter of public record and should be made available to voters, taxpayers, and parents within a reasonable amount of time. These efforts fell short, however, as unions have steadfastly opposed this form of transparency.

A victory for union candidates on Saturday not only increases the likelihood of returning to a collective bargaining agreement, it increases the likelihood that these agreements will be made behind closed doors. It would also create a scenario where the union would be bargaining with a board controlled by members elected with union support. This is not a recipe for success.

By virtually every objective measure, Jefferson Parish schools have improved. But the union that just spent millions of dollars to maintain Democratic control of the U.S. Senate and to defeat conservative governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is hoping to undo these gains. Given the Republican wave that washed away the union’s national ambitions last month, it would be a remarkable development if politically conservative Jefferson Parish elected to turn its School Board over to the friends of the American Federation of Teachers.

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