Maybe the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) needs that high-priced public relations type to match Superintendent John White’s part time $144,000 telecommuting PR hack after all.
One might think that any news release by BESE would be Tuesday’s approval of 45 course choice providers despite a judge’s ruling last week that the method of funding course choice and vouchers is unconstitutional.
One would be wrong.
The only news release by BESE was the announcement that Chas Roemer (R-Baton Rouge) was elected President of the board and James Garvey (R-Metairie), Vice President and Holly Boffy (R-Youngsville), Secretary-Treasurer.
“Penny Dastugue, BESE’s current President, congratulated the Board’s new officers,” the news release said.
“I’m honored to have been chosen, and I look forward to living up to the confidence the other Board members have placed in us to continue our work in making Louisiana’s education system among the best in the nation,” it quoted Roemer as saying.
Garvey agreed, it said. “It is a privilege to be selected by our fellow representatives as a leader in this effort,” he was quoted as saying.
“It is a tremendous responsibility, and we look forward to meeting that responsibility,” Boffy added.
Now that, folks, is heavy-duty reporting.
Never mind that BESE, by an 8-2 vote, completely ignored the ruling of Baton Rouge District Judge Tim Kelley that said the diversion of constitutionally-mandated funding for public schools under the state’s Minimum Foundation Program in favor of private, for-profit firms and online companies was unconstitutional.
Gov. Piyush “The Petulant” Jindal responded to the legal ruling in equally legal terminology, saying the “ruling is wrong-headed and a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education.”
State Education Superintendent John White, in a typically verbose statement released after the ruling said, “We strongly disagree with the ruling. We are optimistic this decision will be reversed on appeal.”
The court ruling aside, BESE members allied with Piyush practically gushed over their newfound independence from the courts.
“I’m so excited about the opportunities that the courses will provide to our students,” Boffy said.
Outgoing board President Dastugue added, “We don’t have an option to delay.”
Board members Lottie Beebe (R-Breaux Bridge) and Carolyn Hill (D-Baton Rouge) voted against the course choice providers and even suggested that some of their fellow board members should recuse themselves because they were recipients of campaign contributions from organizations and individuals applying for the tax dollars to offer the online courses.
Beebe, in an email, said, “I pointed out that I would be remiss if I did not point out that at least five BESE members should consider recusing themselves…particularly if they received political contributions from any (applicants).”
That recommendation, she said, produced “fireworks.”
“I received an earful from Chas Roemer and Ms. Boffy defending their campaign contributions and the perceived conflict of interests. I wonder why this would be such a sensitive issue.
“Despite my attempt to encourage them to do the honorable thing, they voted favorably regarding the choice providers,” she said.
“For the record, one approved entity’s PAC (political action committee) contributed approximately $50,000 to five BESE members.”
She did not identify the PAC but CNS did identify one PAC that contributed a total of $41,000 to five BESE members. Some of the contributions were difficult to track because in at least three cases, an applicant contributed to a PAC which in turned contributed to a board member. In one instance, an applicant contributed to a PAC which contributed to a second PAC, which then contributed to the board member.
“And to think,” she said, “public school employees are mandated by law to participate in one hour of ethics training annually.”
Here are the approved applicants and their contributions to the campaigns of BESE members:
Pelican Chapter, Associated Builders and Contractors PAC:
• Jay Guillot (R-Ruston)—$5,000;
• James Garvey—$5,000;
• Holly Boffy—$5,000;
• Chas Roemer—$10,000;
• Kira Orange Jones (D-New Orleans)—$10,000
• Holly Boffy—$1,000;
• Kira Orange Jones—$5,000;
Richard Zuschlag (CEO of Acadian Ambulance and Acadian Companies/National EMS Academy:
• Holly Boffy—$500.
Additionally, several successful applicants contributed to Jindal’s campaign. They included:
• PEC/Premier Safety Management—$5,000;
• Zuschlag and Acadian Ambulance—$36,000;
• Craig Spohn, executive director of the Cyber Innovation Center in Bossier City and appointed as a member of the Higher Education Group of the Gov.-elect Jindal’s Economic Growth Transition Advisory Council—$10,000;
A myriad of complaints about online course choice schools was uncovered in an investigative report by the New York Times last year.
Some of those problems included a high turnover rate among teaching staff, poor academic results and insufficient state oversight.
The Times report noted that there was a “virtual churn rate” of more than 50 percent in New York online schools. Mid-year transfers numbered at least 1,000 students per year, meaning that at least $6 million per year went to online schools for students who no longer were enrolled.
Moreover, in many instances, when students transferred back into the public system, state funding did not follow them. Jindal has insisted all along that the “money follows the student,” and that local districts were not losing funding.
It will be interesting to revisit BESE’s actions in the months ahead to see how much money can extracted from the state by political insiders and to see if applicants were vetted any better than the infamous New Living Word School in Ruston which was approved for more than 300 vouchers before it was learned the school had no desks, no teachers and no books.
Of course, a repeat of that blunder is not expected considering that White had the foresight to hire Dave “Lefty” Lefkowith of the Canyon Group in Los Angeles at a cool $146,000 per year to hype the course choice program.
Now all he has to do is figure out a way around that pesky court ruling.