Education official commutes from Los Angeles

A top official of the state Department of Education lives in Los Angeles and commutes to his office in Baton Rouge.

The educator is Dave Lefkowith, who is an assistant superintendent and oversees Louisiana’s new program that will allow public school students to take classes from private firms, online groups and colleges.

Lefkowith, who is paid $145,000 per year, said he generally returns to Los Angeles on Thursday night or Friday and usually heads back to Baton Rouge on Sunday mornings.

“I am on call at all times typically,” he said. “It is really important work.”

State Superintendent of Education John White said Lefkowith has experience changing systems and working with industries, which he said are both relevant in revamping how public school classes are offered and improving the state’s career diploma program.

“And we have gotten a situation where a nationwide expert that went to Stanford business school and Yale University wants to work with us to improve the relationships with the business community,” White said.

“That is a great opportunity,” he added.

White said, “Dave has a commute and significant expenses associated with his living arrangements. He pays for all of that himself.”

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, raised the issue briefly, without identifying Lefkowith by name, during a recent discussion of the state Department of Education in the House Appropriations Committee.

Smith, a frequent critic of department initiatives, said she is troubled by Lefkowith’s work routine.

“I think it is important that if you take a job somewhere, you ought to be living there,” she said last week.

Smith said she also has concerns about how the job came about.

Lefkowith’s consulting firm, called The Canyon Group, got a $35,000 contract from the state last year, primarily to develop an Office of Portfolio Planning in the state Department of Education, largely to make sure that courses in the state’s new way to offer classes matched to job and academic opportunities.

But shortly after the contract began, Lefkowith was hired to be assistant superintendent of portfolio.

His firm, which he said has been trimmed from three offices to himself, was paid $23,450, according to the state Department of Education.

“There is a frequent criticism of government agencies that they keep people on contracts to avoid having a fulltime employee,” White said.

“Here we hired a fulltime employee because we needed to make this part of our longtime strategy,” he said.

Smith disagreed.

“That concerns me that he had a contract, then ends up getting hired to do the same job he was contracted to get information for the state,” she said.

The salaries of White’s executive staff range from $110,000 per year to $225,000 annually.

Lefkowith, 57, said one reason he commutes is because his wife is an administrator at UCLA, where she is director of counseling and psychological services.

“I can do my job the way I do it,” he said. “She could not do it without being there seven days per week.”

The state’s new way of offering courses, which the Legislature approved last year, is set to begin with the 2013-14 school year.

Backers say offering online and other classes will help students catch up with peers, graduate on time and take classes not offered in their schools.

Critics called “course choice” another drain on what they call woefully underfunded traditional public schools.