Candidates for state and local offices responded to questions focused education, area youth and community engagement in front of nearly 150 retired teachers during a forum today.

The Terrebonne Retired Teachers Association invited candidates across five major offices to concisely share their own message as well as answer two office-specific questions in five minutes.

One of the questions was the same for all candidates for a single office, and the other differed with each person.

The two candidates vying to represent District 3 on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, commonly known as BESE, stepped up to the podium first. BESE is the state board charged with developing the school funding formula and adopts rules that govern school districts.

Challenger and Houma resident Janice Perea introduced herself as a fourth grade teacher in Terrebonne Parish for Coteau Bayou Blue Elementary School.

She said she felt that while the state and school district boasts growth, she questioned whether they've actually made gains.

"Or are we really just lowering our standards?" said Perea.

Even though her daughter scored a mastery on her state tests in elementary school, she said she still wasn't confident that her daughter had learned all of the material.

Asked if student's test scores are an adequate way to evaluate teachers, Perea said assessments should focus on observing what's happening each day inside the classroom instead of just on a single day.

"There are so many things that can go wrong on test day," she said.

Incumbent Sandy Holloway, who has served for the past four years, has been in education for over 40 years as a teacher and administrator in the Lafourche Parish School District. She launched the Bayou Community Academy, the local charter school in Lafourche.

Holloway said she supports the state's school accountability system, though she agrees that more "tweaks" need to be made. She said that system is what allows parents to know how schools, teachers and districts are doing.

"It is your prerogative to know how your school in your district is doing," she said.

Both candidates said they feel confident in their ability to work with legislators on the school funding formula, which provided raises to teachers and support staff and additional money to school districts for the first time in a decade this past legislative session. 

Holloway pointed to that the raise and increase in the school funding formula as an example of her abilities.

"That's what happened this past year especially," she said. "Was that enough? Absolutely not."

She said the BESE members "stood firm" this year to obtain the money.

Perea said she worked as a member of the Louisiana Association of Educators to write letters of support for the increases as well as discussed the issue with the governor.

All five candidates for Senate District 20 were present: Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, Michael "Big Mike" Fesi Sr., Brenda Leroux Babin, Damon Baldone and Shane Swan.

All of the candidates stated they were against the state's penalties against retired teachers for returning to work in a subject area that is not a critical shortage, believing experienced teachers should be able to teach again if they choose.

Babin noted that she is a retired teacher, and added that she'd protect the promise constitutionally given to the state's teachers of guaranteed retirement money.

"I want to return respect not only to the teachers in the classroom but to retired teachers as well," she said.

Baldone and Fesi said they believe that retired teachers should make more if they return to work.

Swan pointed to the industrial tax exemption as something he aims to help reform. That exemption allows industries to avoid paying 80 percent of its property taxes for the first five years, with an option to renew at the same rate for another five years.

"The industrial tax exemption program is currently the leading enemy of the teachers by giving away money to businesses that don’t need them," he said.

For House District 51, challenger Clayton Voisin Sr. and incumbent Beryl Amedee said they viewed the increase in the school funding formula this year as a step in the right direction.

Voisin said he'd like to see the state return to providing an annual 2.5% increase to the formula that stopped in the last 10 years.

He said he wants to move more money toward education rather than "big business," feeling that they both need to work "hand-in-hand."

Amedee, who also served on the House Education Committee, said she'd like to see the Legislature pass the teacher's bill of rights, bring back recess to elementary schools and eventually have the average pay for a teacher in Louisiana exceed the southern regional average.

She also explained why she and the rest of her committee voted to send the proposed school funding formula with additional money back to BESE this year, defending the decision while adding that she wanted to reform the process.

"We did not vote it down," she said. "We delayed it."

Five of the six candidates for sheriff in Terrebonne Parish attended the forum: Mike Solet, Tim Soignet, Blayne Bergeron, Terry Daigre and Jerri Smitko. Mark Pitre wasn't present.

All of the candidates were asked what they would do to curb the large number of drug arrests of young people.

Solet and Soignet pointed to bringing back D.A.R.E. programs to the school system, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

Bergeron said he'd like to see the office "get into the community and work with our children," establishing relationships.

"If we can plant a seed and save one kid, we've been successful," he said.

Daigre said as sheriff, he would only be the sheriff rather that entering other realms. He said he'd offer support for coalitions that work to rehabilitate drug offenders, but his main goal would be to "stop major drugs from coming into the parish."

Smitko, the lone female candidate, said the focus needed to shift to diversion programs and the removal of drugs from school buildings. 

"Until we get the drugs out of the schools, our children aren't safe," she said. "We have to get the drugs away from them."

On the sheriff's budget, Solet, Soignet and Smitko said they planned to reduce any "wasteful spending." Smitko highlighted the department's spending on legal fees and items under $30,000 that aren't required to go out for bid.

Bergeron said he'd make the budget more transparent by compartmentalizing it to show where the spending is.

Daigre, who is currently the chief deputy, said with his experience on the administrative side of the office and work with their chief financial officer, he'd be able to handle managing the budget, which has ranged from $25 million to $30 million over the years.

In the final segment of the forum, Terrebonne Parish President Gordy Dove and challenger David McCormick responded to questions about how they would engage the community.

Dove highlighted his work during his tenure to address hurricane protection and infrastructure issues. In terms of engaging with the community on decisions, he said, "I do it every day."

"Citizens are involved in everything I do," he said.

Asked about whether downtown Houma on Main Street is successful and if he would make changes, Dove said it has a lot of fast food. 

"We try to keep it clean and are trying to add amenities to it," he said.

McCormick said he wants to start a "community-based committee" that would help engage residents living in areas that councilmen aren't as familiar with.

He said the committees would help "keep that connection with the parish government and the local people in our area."

Asked about traffic issues, McCormick said he'd noticed problems along Martin Luther King Boulevard and suggested adding permanent turn lanes a medians to the road to improve safety.

 

Staff Writer Halle Parker can be reached at hparker@houmatoday.com or 857-2204. Follow her on Twitter, @_thehalparker.