by Will Sentell
Capitol news bureau
September 18, 2012
Three state education leaders said they are concerned about the background of a firm that wants to offer online classes to public school students through a new program to aid troubled schools.
The company, JRL Enterprises, Inc., is one of 31 which are seeking state approval to offer courses for students outside of traditional classrooms.
All the applicants face a multi-step review, which includes personal interviews, by state officials before they will be allowed to offer the courses. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or BESE, makes the final decision.
“We will have a very complete record on these people,” said Dave Lefkowith, deputy superintendent for the state Department of Education. “It will be an exhaustive process.”
Critics have questioned how the state will ensure that the classes meet quality standards.
The change stems from a bill pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and approved by the Louisiana Legislature earlier this year.
JRL Enterprises, while never accused of wrongdoing, played a prominent role in the 2009 bribery trial of the late Mose Jefferson, brother of former U. S. Rep. William Jefferson.
Mose Jefferson was convicted of bribery and obstruction of justice after being accused of paying $140,000 in kickbacks to a former New Orleans school board president for her support in awarding school contracts to a computer-based teaching system he sold.
Authorities said Jefferson was the source of the money for help winning school board approval of contracts for JRL’s “I CAN Learn” program.
He died last year while serving a 10-year sentence.
News accounts said JRL Enterprises paid a firm run by Mose Jefferson $913,000 in consulting fees.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten was quoted in 2008 as saying that, in all, Mose Jefferson helped JRL secure about $14 million in contracts.
JRL is now seeking state approval to offer students an online version of “I CAN Learn,” which company officials call an acclaimed math program that has won praise from the U.S. Department of Education.
“It is fair to say we are approaching this applicant, based on what we know, with some significant skepticism,” state Superintendent of Education John White said on Friday.
Penny Dastugue, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Jim Garvey, another BESE member, said they are concerned about JRL’s entry.
Dastugue, of Mandeville, said she questions whether the firm’s application will move past the initial round of state reviews.
“The concern is just that there have been some reports of questionable dealings around that firm,” Dastugue said in an interview on Friday.
She said when she saw the application she told White that he should “look a little deeper.”
Garvey made similar comments.
“JRL has what you might call a checkered past,” Garvey said in an interview Thursday.
He cited the $900,000 paid to Jefferson’s consulting business and “large bonuses” to other people who bring in customers.
“There are just a bunch of question marks,” said Garvey, of Metairie.
“I am not sure whether the question marks rise to the level that says this company can no longer do business with us,” he said.
Garvey said he has also read articles that questioned the effectiveness of JRL’s software packages.
“We’ll dig into it deeper,” he said. “I know I have some concerns.”
Vincent Melerine, vice president of customer support for JRL, disputed those comments.
Melerine said that John R. Lee, the president and founder of the firm, testified for the prosecution three times in the Jefferson case. “So we stand firm in our ethics and our moral obligation to do good by these students, both in Louisiana and nationwide,” he said.
Melerine also said Jefferson’s contract required him to “follow the letter of the law” in touting the benefits of the “I CAN Learn” program.
The new program, which is called Course Choice, is supposed to expand academic options.
Under previous rules, the state’s roughly 700,000 public school students were mostly limited to courses available in the building.