Calcasieu School Board candidates discuss issues ahead of election

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Calcasieu Federation of Teachers hosted their second School Board candidate forum on Monday, inviting candidates in Districts 10, 11, 12 and 13 to appear.

Alvin Smith, who represents District 10, said his extensive educational background and experience has aided him in understanding “the value and need for our children to be the commodities of value.”

“We represent a wide spectrum of children, those with special needs, those that are gifted,” he said. “We have to establish a priority that we reach every child in our public school system.”

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Hurricane recovery and student retention are primary concerns for Smith. “Through the last couple of years, we have lost a lot of students and families because of the circumstances that we have faced,” he said. “We’ve worked feverishly to make sure that families are able to move back to our area and be able to bring their children and students back with them.”

He also said he is a staunch supporter of the public school system, as opposed to the charter school system.

Smith said that amidst hurricane construction more efficient security systems can be implemented.

“As we continue to improve and repair from our storm damage, we must create a diversity of understanding … that we are implementing very safe areas.”

“We find ourselves, many times, thinking that our schools are not safe. Basically, under some circumstances, they might not be,” he said. “By and large, Calcasieu Parish may have incidents here … even a couple this year, but we cannot look at those and determine that this is going to be the criteria for the whole district.”

Tony O’Banin is running against Smith in District 10. He said his goal is to “bring back some trust and good relations between the board and the employees,” by “breaking things down to the simplest terms.”

“We all want students to have a safe and comfortable learning environment, but I think one way to accomplish that is to ensure that teachers are happy,” he said. “I think we should ask teachers and employees their opinion, but also listen to what they say and not just ignore what they say.”

When asked about his primary concerns regarding student achievement in the district, O’Banin said “talking to the people in the trenches” is a necessity.

“I think we need to talk to the people involved,” he said. “We need to give teachers, administrators and employees all the tools they need to do their job.”

To ensure transparency and accountability from CPSB, O’Banin said he wants to create financial resources that are more accessible to the public.

“The budget is on the website and is public information … but it is very hard to find information in the budget,” he said. “It’s hard to get the information that you need at a glance, and I think that’s where we need to improve and make things better.”

He said a specific financial issue he would address is the CPSB insurance policies. “I’ve been looking at the health insurance, and what is paid to Blue Cross Blue Shield versus the employee portion that goes in and how that’s broken down, and I will get with an internal auditor.”

Another primary concern for O’Banin is educator flexibility, especially regarding curriculum.

“There is a limit to what we can do on the curriculum because of the mandates from the state … we do have a little flexibility, but I don’t think it’s enough,” he said. “I just wish we had more flexibility to let our teachers teach.”

Phyllis Ayo is running for the District 11 seat. As a retired educator and current Calcasieu Federation and Support Personnel member, she said she has the necessary insider perspective needed to enrich CPSB.

“I’ve been going to School Board meetings for the last five years. I’ve watched what’s going on and what’s not going on. I’ve been in the classes on a daily basis talking to teachers, administrators, support personnel, bus drivers, custodians, secretaries; I get them all,” she said. “This is not just a job. This is a passion.”

Ayo she she has already noticed areas with possible improvement, and she is “ready to sign up for the job.”

If elected, she said she will be vocal to enact change and promote honesty with stakeholders. “I have no problem speaking and letting you know what’s really going on. I’m not afraid, and I’m not a typical politician.”

When asked about her position on technology in the classrooms, Ayo said while technology is important, it is necessary for CPSB to “get back to the basics.”

“You need to know how to write. You need to know how to do math,” she said. “Technology is important, I’m not going to say that it’s not, but I don’t think it needs to take precedence over the basics.”

Ayo advocates for teacher evaluations that are not based on student test scores, guaranteed teacher planning time, and an updated code of conduct. Uninterrupted teacher planning time is a primary concern.

“I think it’s important to make sure that the board enforces that the principals are making sure that our teachers get 45 minutes, unencumbered. They put more and more on the teachers’ plates and give them less and less time,” she said. “It’s invaluable, you need that time.”

For Ayo, a key accomplishment the board could achieve with her help is ensuring fair pay for teachers and personnel. “We need to find the money to pay our teachers what they’re worth.” She said if she is elected, she has plans to seek out funding via cuts, such as examining high-paying duplicate positions

“I think it’s past time to get an educator on the board,” Ayo sadi. “I will not just be a School Board member, I work with my whole heart. This is my job. This is my passion. This is my purpose.”

District 11 candidate Derrick Trahan was not present at the forum.

District 12 Representative Russell Castille said his passion for bettering the school system stems from the many educators in his life. “You hear lots of things that happen,” he said. “I love students, I love kids, and that’s why I’m in it.”

Castille said as a current board member, the role of the School Board is to be “the governing authority over the Calcasieu Parish School System.”

“We adopt policies, we make sure that those policies are followed and implemented to the best of our ability,” he said. “So in essence, we govern everything that is brought down to the superintendent. We look at that and make sure that they’re implemented through the superintendent and staff.”

For Castille, the essentials of a quality education are a proper learning environment, proper parental environment, efficient curriculum, and highly qualified teachers.

Synergy between school and home environments is important, according to Castille.

“Does the student feel safe, loved and encouraged when he goes to school? If he doesn’t, we need to change something within the school, be it administration, teachers,” he said. “We need to do a better job of trying to get our parents engaged. We need to do whatever we can to possibly get those teachers, those students, those parents, those guardians, all on the same page.”

Castille said in regards to curriculum, it is important to ensure the progression of learning is efficient and logical by “making sure that we’re going to 2 plus 2 equals 4, and that 4 times 4 equals 16, and that continuing the steps to increase their knowledge.”

Part of ensuring the Calcasieu Parish school system has highly qualified teachers is proper communication, said Castille. Through communication, CPSB can equip “the teacher with the necessary tools and the resources to perform their job.”

“If we’re not, we need to know about it. Sometimes we don’t know about these things unless we’re told these things… So, we need to have communication between everyone.”

Georgina Graves, District 12 candidate, considers herself  “above everything else an advocate.”

Graves was inspired to run after learning students at her children’s school who were unable to pay their school fees were unable to participate in field day. “Isolation is one of the coldest things that you can do to a human, let alone a child,” she said.

For Graves, considering the mental health of the students is paramount, especially in regards to disciplinary action. “I think that certain transgressions that happened at school don’t warrant a child being put in handcuffs,” she said.

She believes that while bullying is “horrible,” there are other options to explore that deviate from the Zero Tolerance Policy. “Are we intervening with a counselor or mental health professional and seeing that someone made this child feel powerless, and so they needed to make somebody else feel powerless?” she asked. “Because surely, that bully is going to be suffering academically and socially.”

“These are things that we can touch base on with mental health professionals, instead of going straight to the hardcore disciplinary action, like expulsion or the ZT policy.”

Graves aims to prevent teachers from paying out of pocket for school supplies by using her 25 years of marketing experience to financially partner with local businesses, create peer mentorship programs throughout the school system, and fight to raise teacher and support staff pay.

She also plans to institute community closets at every school. “A majority of our parish lives in poverty right now… so some kids are coming to school without deodorant or shampoo,” she said.

That is not all Graves has planned if she were to get elected. “When I’m elected, I will be hosting bimonthly meetings with teachers, with families and hopefully once a semester with kids,” she said. “That way, we can get an inside scoop.”

Billy Breaux, District 13 representative, was present at the forum. Due to candidate George VanderHey dropping out, Breaux has won the seat unopposed. He donated his time to the other candidates.

The final CPSB candidate forum will be at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26, at the Machinist Hall in Lake Charles. Candidates from Districts 5, 6, 7, and 14 will be present.