Like the muddy waters of the Mississippi River that flow right past the Claiborne Building, operations in the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) just seem to get murkier and murkier and its bureaucracy more and more difficult to navigate.
There is Teach for America (TFA), the cluster of TFA alumni awarded administrative positions in the department and the financial manipulations that go with that program; the controversy over charters and course choice; the ongoing courtroom battles over the funding of vouchers, the questionable appointments of out-of-state commuters, the agreement to feed student personal information into a data bank controlled by Rupert Murdoch, and the ever-daunting challenge of obtaining public records from the department, to name only a few.
Easily the most secretive of any state agency, DOE is supported by a governor who, ironically enough, likes to boast of his administration’s openness and transparency. DOE and Superintendent of Education John White operate with virtual autonomy—mostly because there is no system of checks and balances to ensure that the agency is answerable.
Requests for public records are ignored, The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), with the exception of two members, rubber-stamps anything Jindal and White suggest, be it ripping funding away from local school boards to pay for vouchers to approving applications for course choice (online) programs to burdening the department with costly six-figure positions filled by itinerates with little to no classroom experience.
White recently received his annual performance evaluation from BESE and predictably received high marks from nine of the board’s 11 members. The truth of the matter, however, is that White is woefully ill-qualified to lead even a local school system, much less a statewide system of 700,000 public school students.
Unfortunately, his six-weekend course (spread out over 10 months) at the Eli Broad Superintendents Academy does not qualify him to lead a Cub Scout troop. Yet, Gov. Bobby Jindal considered him more qualified than any other candidate to preside over the demolition of public education in Louisiana.
The Eli Broad Academy, by the way, has come under criticism for turning out superintendents who use corporate-management techniques to consolidate power, weaken teachers’ job protections, cut parents out of the decision-making process and introduce unproven reform measures.
The latest audit of the Recovery School District is evidence enough of White’s inability to run a statewide system.
The audit, released on March 27, revealed that for the sixth consecutive year, RSD continued to experience problems keeping track of millions of dollars in movable property.
Why does that reflect on White when Patrick Dobard is the RSD superintendent?
Well, for openers, the latest audit is for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012 and White did not become state superintendent until January of 2012.
Prior to that, he was superintendent of the Recovery School District.
The audit says, “For the sixth consecutive year, RSD did not ensure that movable property was safeguarded against loss, including loss arising from unauthorized use and misappropriation. Our review of RSD’s movable property activity disclosed the following:”
• RSD’s annual certification of property inventory, which the Louisiana Property Assistance Agency did not approve, disclosed $26,664,976 in total movable property, which included 1,633 items with a total acquisition cost of $2,738,016 that have been identified as unlocated during the past four-year period. Of the 1,633 unlocated items, 1,380 items were computers or computer-related equipment. The 2012 annual certification also identified 908 items with a total acquisition cost of $1,482,060 (54 percent) as unlocated for the current period.
• RSD reported 10 incidents at six separate schools involving 97 movable property items with an acquisition cost of $73,667 as missing/stolen to the legislative auditor and the local district attorney. Of the 97 movable property items, 70 were computers. Management has represented that seven items with an acquisition cost of $6,118 have been recovered.
• The 10 reported incidents involved computers being stolen from four RSD direct-run schools and one charter school. There was no sign of forced entry in three instances that resulted in a loss of 48 items with an acquisition cost of $20,064. In one instance, 26 Dell laptop computers and 20 Apple I-Pod Nano media devices with an acquisition cost of $17,031 were stolen from an RSD direct-run school’s storage room.
• RSD’s movable property function is hampered by the decentralization of movable property at the various custodians (schools) and a lack of accountability and training of the custodians for RSD property. Failure to safeguard movable property increases the risk that assets may be misreported, lost or stolen. In addition, the year-to-year cost of replacing lost or stolen movable items could reduce the availability of funds (federal or state) for other educational objectives.
• During FY 2012, RSD did not ensure that employee separation dates were accurate or timely. Not recording separation dates accurately and timely could result in overpayments for terminated employees. This is the sixth consecutive year that we have cited RSD for inadequate controls over its payroll process.
White apparently is far more focused on insulating himself with fellow Teach for America (TFA) and Eli Broad Academy alumni by appointing them to top administrative positions.
Take Chief of Staff Kunjan Narechania and Deputy Superintendent Michael Rounds, for instance.
Rounds, like White, is a 2010 alumnus of Eli Broad and was brought in by White as Deputy Superintendent at $170,000 per year.
Rounds resigned his position as Chief Operating Officer for Kansas City Public Schools a year ago following an investigation into bid irregularities involving a $32 million renovation project for Kansas City schools and a month later the contract was cancelled by Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Green (can you say Bruce Greenstein and CNSI?).
And then there is Narechania, a TFA alumnus who, while officially serving as White’s chief of staff, in reality performed functions normally handled only by a deputy or assistant superintendent.
Narechania oversaw all expenditures in the department; no one purchased anything—not a computer, not even a ball point pen without first obtaining authority from Narechania. All assistant superintendents and directors were required to report to her. No one was hired by the department without her stamp of approval—even when no one was quite sure what the new hire would actually be doing. That was evidenced only days before David Lefkowith was hired last June when she emailed White that there needed to be a decision about what to do about Lefkowith. As late as September and December of 2012, she was still signing off on contract amendments, a duty that did not fall within the job description of a chief of staff.
On Sept. 21, she signed off on an amendment to the department’s 15-year, $65.6 million contract with Data Recognition Corp. for administration of the statewide iLEAP testing program. The amendment added three additional years (to June 30, 2015) and $20.96 million to the existing contract.
Beneath her signature was the crossed through printed title “Assistant Superintendent.”
The other contract amendment had the proper title of Chief of Staff beneath her signature that approved a $3.5 million amendment to a $17.5 million contract with Pacific Metrics Corp. for the replenishing of materials for science, social studies and math.
So why didn’t White simply have Narechania confirmed as deputy or assistant superintendent?
One source within the department said it was because when White appeared before the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee for approval of the appointments of several other administrators last June, he knew he could not obtain Narechania’s confirmation because she was already acting as his number two, sighing all personnel paperwork, contracts, etc., on his behalf.
It would have been awkward to explain that to the committee.
That could be the reason he asked BESE to petition the legislature to approve a reorganization of DOE and has proceeded with that reorganization—without either BESE or legislative approval.
The problem, however, is that he has been operating outside the law for more than a year now by allowing her to sign off on personnel matters and on DOE contracts.