BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - In a room already energized after a lengthy discussion about race in Baton Rouge’s education community, East Baton Rouge Parish School Board members read aloud their votes for a new superintendent between Nakia Towns, a black American woman, and Leslie Brown, a white American woman.
Brown won in a 5-4 vote split primarily along racial lines, with the exception of District 1 board member Mark Bellue, a white American man, who voted for Towns, and District 4 board member Dawn Collins, a black American woman, who voted for Brown.
Collins bore the brunt of the outrage from audience members almost immediately.
Former state senate candidate Gary Chambers rushed for the microphone to speak during a public comment period.
“Dawn, you voted against a black woman tonight,” said Chambers.
Board president Michael Gaudet attempted to interject, only managing to say, “sir,” seeming aghast at Chambers’ statement, before Chambers continued.
“You just voted against a black woman with a PhD. You failed us tonight,” said Chambers. “All that we did to stand up for black people tonight. And, you sided with the people who took two hours to give us something that took 75 years.”
Gaudet immediately adjourned the meeting, preventing any other community members from speaking and Collins from responding.
Collins, instead, released a statement on her social media pages where backlash continued overnight.
Read it below:
“I didn’t make a statement about my vote last night because I knew in that moment, there was absolutely nothing I could say that would actually be heard. I should have said what I had to say anyway. For that, I apologize. But that is the ONLY thing I am apologizing for. Last night certain people thought they had me pinned against the wall because I’m black, and ‘I had no choice.‘
THIS IS MY RESPONSE TO THEM, and to the parent in my district I responded to this morning:
Please do absolutely continue to be involved and hold us all accountable. I appreciate and respect your input, but it wasn't the only input I received. At the end of the day, I had to vote my conscience. There was absolutely nothing easy about last night's vote for me. I knew I would be falsely labeled as a result, but I stand by my vote.
Do you realize that according to Tennessee's own Department of Education website Dr. Towns would have been coming from a district that is predominantly white and only 35% economically disadvantaged, but STILL only had 34% of their children on level for ELA and only 38% on level for Math? That's literally worse than EBR's numbers in ELA with ours at 40% and only slightly better in Math with ours at 31%. Meanwhile, from a district that is actually more complicated than our own with six times as many students- 260,000 with 81% of those students being children of color and a 56% poverty rate - Brown is coming from a district that significantly outperforms our own, and she's been there in positions long enough to actually take credit for some of that success.
Poverty does not dictate the success of a child, but there are huge correlations between economic status and ‘accountability results.' How could Towns do better for a district with a student population that’s 80% economically disadvantaged when she hasn’t done better for one with far less challenges? Because she has a degrees from Duke and Vanderbilt? Do you know how many of our own classroom teachers have degrees that are just as great or better? Or would she do better because she hopped around in several high profile jobs in both business and education fields? Why does she hop around so much and what impact does that have on her management style and ability to commit to our children? It’s ok because she’s black? Unfortunately, ‘just because someone looks like us, doesn’t mean they are for us’ - or maybe that’s what you want to say about me even though I previously voted for the stronger black candidates we had earlier in the process. Candidates that were pushed out, not only because the whites didn’t want them but because they were black balled by special interests. If they were the types of blacks they could use, they would’ve gotten the job.
And there you have it. On top of all of that, behind the scenes there were special interest groups pushing for the lesser black candidate? Why is that?”
Among the backlash, social media users hurled insults and racial epithets at Collins throughout the night.
Some branded Collins as a “traitor” to the black American community. Others chose to use more explicit, pejorative terms.
Collins ended her statement by responding to the use of one such term against her.
“I voted my conscience. So, if voting for the person who had a stronger record for moving children like ours forward makes me a ‘house n----,’ then... so be it, but I’m not taking that chance on our children. I’m sorry if that disappoints you.”
Collins ended her social media post with the hashtags, unapologetic, unapologetically black, unbought, and unbossed.
Collins’ statement added fuel to rumors suggesting school board members have too cozy of a relationship with the business community, and those relationships somehow influenced the selection process.
Just hours before a meeting in May where Towns and Brown were selected as finalists, representatives from the NAACP selectively released 16 email conversations between East Baton Rouge Parish school board members and members of Baton Rouge’s business community.
In some of the emails provided by the NAACP, school board members appear to be having routine discussions with MAPP Construction president and CEO, Mike Polito.
In one email Polito appears to criticize board members about the job description put together by JG Consulting, the group hired to secure and vet candidates for superintendent.
“Our group is very disappointed in the job description...We cannot recognize basically any of the qualities we all discussed and agreed were important,” the email provided by the NAACP says. “Please let me know when you have time to discuss. I urge you all to have [JG Consulting] go back to the drawing board.”
Another email released by the NAACP appears to show Polito offering to “go back at” Chambers on behalf of school board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson about comments made on social media.
That conversation progresses into Ware-Jackson appearing to admit an issue during the early-March vote to select semi-finalists.
“We made some errors in the last couple of hours before the meeting that affected the list of candidates moving forward to the interview phase. It may not affect the final choice but in all fairness two candidates should get a recount,” Ware-Jackson says in the NAACP-provided email. “One candidate’s name was wrong on the ballot. ‘Christ’ did not apply. My vote was affected...”
Ware-Jackson goes on to say in the NAACP-provided email that she alerted the school board’s attorney and other members of the school board about the issue.
“We need to do what we can to fix that and get past that or many people will not trust our process or final choice,” Ware-Jackson’s email says.
It’s unclear what action, if any, was taken by the school board.
Ware-Jackson did not respond to requests for an interview.
The NAACP filed a lawsuit June 9, asking a district judge to halt the superintendent selection and order the school board to start the process over.
Court hearings on the lawsuit were scheduled to happen after the selection, however.
It’s unclear if a district judge would be able to order the school board to start the process over since a selection has been made.
Board members Bellue, Tramelle Howard, Dadrius Lanus, and Ware-Jackson voted for Towns.
Board members Gaudet, Collins, Jill Dyason, Connie Bernard, and David Tatman voted for Brown.
Immediately after the vote, Lanus left the room.
The remaining board members expressed congratulations and reaffirmed previous statements that they would work to support whoever was selected and focus on next steps for Baton Rouge’s educational community.
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