The Advocate: Charter schools once again dominate District 4 race for East Baton Rouge School Board

The Advocate: Charter schools once again dominate District 4 race for East Baton Rouge School Board

A political consultant and a Navy veteran-turned-substance abuse counselor are battling it out in a March 5 special election to fill the open District 4 seat on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, which recently was vacated by longtime occupant Tarvald Smith.

Dawn Collins and Robert Maxie, both black and registered Democrats, are running in the predominantly black and Democratic north Baton Rouge district.

Collins and Maxie are both mid-’90s graduates of Baton Rouge public schools — Lee and Capitol high schools, respectively. Both have school-aged children. Collins, 39, has two sons, 18 and 19 years old, who are recent graduates of Belaire and Scotlandville high schools and are now in college. Maxie, 37, has six children, five in school now — two are at Belaire High, and three attend Labelle Aire Elementary.

Collins, however, is backed by traditional public education advocates, including teachers unions and local leaders, such as state Rep. Pat Smith, with ties to the school system.

Maxie, meanwhile, is getting support from business and community leaders who favor greater privatization and expansion of charter schools, public schools run by private organizations.

In some ways, it’s a replay of the 2014 elections, which pitted those same groups against each other. When the dust cleared, business-backed candidates on the board had expanded from a narrow majority to a supermajority of 6-3.

If Maxie is elected March 5, that grows to a 7-2 majority. If Collins is elected, the balance of power remains 6-3.

Tarvald Smith was one of the three board members elected in fall 2014 who were backed by traditional education leaders. He faced Maxie then, who was in his first run for elective office, beating him by a 60-40 percent margin. They ran in a District 4 that had just been substantially redrawn as part of a controversial, business-pushed reduction in the size of the School Board from 11 to nine members.

In November, Smith, who’d served on the School Board for more than 11 years, stepped down after winning a seat on the Baton Rouge City Court.

District 4, which has more than 24,000 registered voters, has Florida Boulevard as its south boundary and reaches north to Greenwell Street and the Comite River. It’s bounded by Howell Park in the west and Flannery Road in the east.

Collins has been active in the school system for years and also is active at the state level. She recently served on the education transition team for newly elected Gov. John Bel Edwards. While she supports the original concept of charter schools as places for teachers to innovate, she is against what, to her, they’ve become — ways for private interests to profit at the expense of impoverished children.

“I’ve been fighting for public education,” she said. “It’s time to put family first instead of big business.”

Collins, who has a private political consulting business and has been a registered lobbyist in the recent past, said she got involved in politics when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. She served as a field organizer for that campaign. She has since moved up the ranks of the Democratic Party. In 2012, she became chairwoman of the party’s Executive Committee in East Baton Rouge Parish and remains in that position.

She also is an instructor at Remington College, a nonprofit technical college headquartered in suburban Orlando, Florida. She teaches English and career development at the school’s Baton Rouge campus.

Before going into politics, she briefly worked as a teacher at an alternative school near Tallahassee, Florida. She said she was nominated for teacher of the year during her time there. But she said the negative effects of standardized testing finally convinced her that teaching wasn’t for her.

“It took the joy out of teaching. We would have some very engaging lessons, but you could feel the energy sucked out of the room when you say, ‘Kids, it’s time to prepare for the test,’ ” Collins recalled.

If elected, she said, she will look for ways to reduce the amount of time spent on testing.

Maxie traces his interest in education to problems his children had getting bullied in school. He said he even wrote a letter to the then superintendent. He came to the conclusion he wanted to fix problems rather than just getting upset.

“So when I had a chance to get involved in education at much a bigger level, I jumped at it,” he said.

After high school, Maxie spent 16 years traveling the country as an operations specialist in the Navy. Maxie left the Navy after suffering an injury and returned home, starting a new career as a substance abuse counselor. He is now program director for the Baton Rouge location of Keys Outreach Behavioral Health Clinic. He also is seeking a bachelor’s degree at Grace Bible College, with plans to attend seminary.

Maxie said his unsuccessful 2014 race led him to see the importance of meeting voters face to face and said he’s doing much more of that this time, as well as using social media more.

So far, he’s raised more than $10,200. Like last time, his support is coming primarily from donors and groups connected to Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby, an outspoken supporter of school choice.

Maxie supports school choice but offers more caveats this time than in 2014. He said he supports only charter schools with strong track records and that are open to the community. He also says he doesn’t want too many charter schools, lest they drain too much money from traditional public schools. He offers limited support for private school vouchers, saying he’s personally not a fan, but he supports families having that choice.

He also said he is not defined by who supports him.

“If people really want to know about me, they should sit down with me and I will tell them,” he said.

Maxie also noted that many of the people critical of him and other business-backed candidates have sought money from the same people who now support him.

“The shoe would be on the other foot if they had gotten that money,” he said.

Maxie and Collins agree in some areas. Both say they like what they’ve seen from Superintendent Warren Drake. Both want to increase parental involvement. Both want to see changes in the school system’s approaches to student discipline.

One issue where Collins and Maxie diverge is collective bargaining for educators. Collins is for it, saying it gives employees a voice and doesn’t place all the power in administration.

“There has to be balance,” she said. “Collective bargaining allows for some balance.”

Maxie is noncommittal on collective bargaining, saying he doesn’t want just union leaders to be at the bargaining table.

“I believe it’s important for every teacher to have a voice at the table,” Maxie said, adding he’s open to suggestion about the best way to do that.


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