Calcasieu School Board candidates make their pitches

Published 3:33 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Calcasieu Federation of Teachers hosted their final School Board candidate forum this week, inviting candidates for Districts 6, 7 and 14 to participate.

Recently retired educator Cassandra Austin is running for the District 6 seat. She said she believes her 40 years of experience will create a beneficial perspective for the School Board. “I feel that I have been in the trenches daily, watching, observing and being an encourager,” she said. “I know what the teachers, parents, and students need for academic success.”

When asked about the School Board’s role in curriculum, Austin said it is the duty of the board members to know the school district’s students well enough to determine what curriculum would be best suited for them.

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“When I look at the school district’s curriculum, I know that there are various views that look at the curriculum that are presented before them, and then they select the one that they feel would be best suited for our students in the district.”

Austin believes CPSB is succeeding at protecting students, faculty and staff, citing the district’s effort to install cameras, surveillance equipment and fences in schools, as well as resource officers. She also believes  school drills are executed effectively.

Despite her confidence in CPSB’s security efforts, Austin said there is always room for improvement.

“If anything… we can continue to improve on what we have in place,” she said. “I know that all the different areas, the police, the sheriff’s department, they are all working together to make sure that our children and staff are safe in schools.”

In her closing statements, Austin said her strengths lie in her experience and synergistic mindset.

“I feel my experience will be an asset in being a member of the School Board,” she said. “I feel that I am committed. I feel that I will be very collaborative, listening and working through things that will be a benefit to the achievement of our students.”

“I will listen to all the stakeholders involved to make academic success for all of our students in Calcasieu.”

Running against Austin is current District 6 board member Dean Roberts. He said he believes his experience as a businessman is an asset for the school board.

“I think that it’s important to have that kind of representation on our school board. I’m engaged in our community,” he said. “Over the next four years, I’d like to see a continuous recovery from the last two years of loss and use my knowledge as a contractor and a businessman.”

Roberts was schooled in the Baton Rouge school system, and said his experience there aided in molding his opinions on vouchers, tuition tax credits and charter schools.

“When I was in the fourth grade, they were going to move me out of my school district,” he said. “It was at that point that the school district in Baton Rouge started to collapse. So, the private schools all of sudden thrived and started growing, and I know how big of a struggle that was for my parents.”

Roberts said he respects a parent’s choice to choose an educational path for their children, and believes that as long as the public school system isn’t suppressed, private and charter schools aren’t an issue.

“I think there is a way that it can get done … it needs to be very creative and outside of the box as long as it doesn’t take away from the public school system,” he said. “If the state Legislature can make it work to where it doesn’t hurt us, that’s fine with me.”

When asked about his opinion on the school district’s policy on special education and English as a second language programs, Roberts said Calcasieu Parish “leads in that department, especially special education.”

“When I hear about students and I hear about the resources that we offer these students, it makes me proud,” he said.

For Roberts, it is important that the district retains teachers and compensates them appropriately. He said he believes this is an achievable goal. “If we take care of our budgets and if we have reserves in place like we did during Laura, we won’t miss paychecks,” he said. “We need to get through those tough spots, and we have no businesses laying off teachers in the world we live in.”

Mack Dellafosse, current District 7 board member, assured stakeholders that he is “an avid worker that is not just about talking to people.”

In his introduction, he listed the initiative he has played a primary role in during his time as a board member.  In 2021, he initiated a motion to increase the salary supplement for teachers and support personnel, causing teacher supplements to increase from $3000 to $4500 and personnel support supplements to increase from $2100 to $3185. He also spearheaded the update to the uniform policy to include jeans, and advocated for the creation of many extracurricular activities, such as the creation of a robotics program. He also said he was instrumental in establishing the university programs.

“When you look at my record, it is proven that I know how to get things done.”

When asked about his long-term strategy for improving the quality of education and keeping pace with student growth within the district, Dellafosse said while Calcasieu Parish does many things well, there is room for improvement and additional programs that will amplify the experience of Calcasieu Parish students.

Dellafosse referenced a program that would require “30 hours in the summertime of mandatory reading for all his kids to increase reading proficiency.” He explained that while the initiative is not state mandated, “that’s one thing that I would love to see us adopt.”

He noted a desire to create additional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programs for CPSB students. “We have so many talented students. We need to give them an opportunity to participate in those programs.”

Additionally, Dellafosse expressed his support to build a performing arts school in Calcasieu. “From Houston to New Orleans, there is not a school for the performing arts”

He also said he would seek to institute additional partnerships with the city governments.

Dellafosse said the School Board does not have the power as stakeholders perceive.

“There is only so much we can do,” he explained. “What we can do is make sure we have policies in place that benefit our students and staff.”

He explained that while the School Board is limited in what they are able to change, they do still have enough power to better the school district for students, teachers and personnel alike. “We do have a lot of autonomy to make sure that we do what’s best for our schools.”

The other candidate running for District 7 is Betty Washington. She is a lifelong educator, and believes her experience in the field has provided her with the tools she needs to enrich CPSB.

“During my time here, I have been a teacher, principal, supervisor, director and administrative director,” she said. “I’ve accomplished a lot.”

One of her accomplishments includes the creation of the Life Academy. This program is in partnership with McNeese State University and Sowela Technical Community College. “It’s for those students who are 19 and older who really may be done with high school and want a different experience. We continue to push them to work hard and to get vocational experiences so that one day they can be projected citizens.”

Washington also cited her successes with the district’s 11 alternative programs. “We’ve worked hard to ensure that those students are given the structure and discipline they need in order to return to their home school.”

Washington was asked what policies should be amended or implemented to provide transparency and accountability in regards to curriculum. She said she believes the current system allows for transparency. “The Louisiana Department of Education provides a list of our core textbooks and other instructional material that align with our current standards,” she explained. After the curriculum is examined by a 13-member local adoption committee, the board can then approve or deny the recommendation.

When asked how she would determine the priorities for staff, program or budget cuts, Washington explained that much of that power comes from the superintendent. “The policy stated that the termination for the need to implement reduction of procedures all are made by the superintendent,” she said. “So we would work with the superintendent to ensure that we follow this policy and make recommendations.”

Priorities for Washington are improving test scores and providing aid to lower performing schools.

“I look forward to working and trying to help improve test scores throughout the district,” she said. “I want to ensure that I still continue to improve, fill in those gaps and work with those students that are at our persistently low-performing schools.”