The race for Louisiana’s District 4 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) post remains in flux, with only days to go to the election, as to which Republican will win.
Practically speaking, that means the winner will be either businesswoman Shelly McFarland or lawyer Mike Melerine. Others include independent former state Sen. John Milkovich, Republican teacher Cody Whitaker, and Democrat university professor Cassie Williams. They met at an online forum put on by the Bossier Parish School Board.
Fundraising numbers, from about a month ago, can tell much especially concerning low-information contests. Only McFarland and Melerine have raised any substantial money, with Melerine having a small advantage, and in their own funds added more than they have had donated. Additionally, Melerine has picked up several northwest Louisiana elected officials’ endorsements, some of whom also made donations to his campaign. McFarland has scored some dollars from GOP luminaries as well, but from individuals considered more old line than the newer figures behind Melerine.
At qualification, another candidate looked very competitive to make a runoff against either of these Republicans, retired teacher Democrat Emma Shepard. But Shepard, who was active in education politics and could have been expected to draw mainline Democrat support, subsequently withdrew.
As the only Democrat remaining in the field, this boosts Williams’ chances to make the runoff. However, she faces two things that will hold her back: she’s not even lived in the state for a year, whereas voters prefer longer-time residents, and Milkovich, a former Democrat who has far more name recognition.
But Milkovich’s problem is he comes off too much as a crank. Defeated decisively in his 2019 reelection attempt, during the forum he repeatedly flogged the dying embers of anti-Common Core sentiments and threw out statements such as schools needed to grade the Department of Education, not vice-versa; gripes against former superintendent John White, who left that office a year ago; and that that wealthy out-of-state interests control state education.
That critique he might have applied to Williams’ sparse fundraising, which largely has come in small donations from out-of-state. Then again, to this point his fundraising has consisted of only large donations, from himself and a couple of other sources. Whitaker barely had raised any money at all through the first part of February.
Any hopes Williams has to make it to the runoff centers on her ability not to project her party’s anti-reform platform, which runs counter to the past decade of legislative and BESE policy-making. She didn’t do that well, such as remarks she made about testing. Other candidates made some suggestions of changing its role at the margins, but hers went farther in that could largely moot its utility.
She also largely blew a question about online charter schools, including a discourse misunderstanding the role of the Minimum Foundation Program in public school funding, which she compounded on a later answer specifically about teacher pay. Unlike other candidates who talked of reallocating existing funds, she didn’t vow to avoid tax increases as a means to address the pay issue. And, she touted union endorsements, which might excite some teachers to cast their ballot for her but likely will turn off a more numerous segment of the voting public
McFarland also largely whiffed on the online charter schools question, which asked whether these should receive the same MFP allotment as other schools and whether a BESE member should automatically reject an appeal from such a school denied at the local level, rendering a confused answer. By contrast, Melerine gave a thoughtful, informed response that focused on numbers and examples that would guide his decision-making.
This seemed typical of the pair: Melerine gave more assured, more comprehensive answers at the level of broad policy. As for the remaining GOP contender, Whitaker didn’t show much of that kind of thinking, although predictably he showed a firmer grasp of issues at the classroom level.
At this point, the runoff could feature any of McFarland, Melerine, or Williams. If Williams makes it, whichever of the other two does so as well wins it; the district’s conservative leanings in this lower information race will default strongly to a Republican. If it’s the two Republicans, Melerine has the edge, which might force McFarland to turn selectively anti-reform to capture more liberal voters in the runoff. And Melerine in demographic terms has the advantage to get to the runoff over McFarland; not only does she come from small Winnfield and will have Whitaker, also from there, shave a few votes from her, but also Bossier City elections occurring simultaneously will convey an advantage to Melerine, Milkovich, and Williams, all from Shreveport.