State Superintendent of Education John White has hired a communications manager for $12,000 per month to help promote Louisiana’s latest bid to improve public schools, officials said Wednesday.
In addition, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is advertising for a communications manager of its own, which veteran BESE watchers said has rarely, if ever, been done.
What that official will be paid is unclear.
Heather Cope, who starts her job as BESE’s new executive director later this month, is doing the hiring.
Both moves come at a time of sweeping changes in public schools, including expanded access to vouchers for some students to attend private and parochial schools; tougher teacher evaluations; and major changes in how courses are delivered to public school students.
But Louisiana House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said Wednesday that the hiring and planned hiring of public relations employees warrants scrutiny by his committee, especially amid tight state finances.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Fannin said.
“If they have those extra dollars, they may have more money than they need in their budget,” he added.
Per-pupil spending for public school students has been frozen for four consecutive years.
The state Department of Education oversees day-to-day operations of the state’s roughly 1,300 public schools.
BESE sets policies for public school students.
White, who is paid $275,000 per year, was in meetings all day Wednesday and unavailable for comment, said Barry Landry, a spokesman for the department.
The new hire is Deirdre Finn, who is working under a four-month contract to manage the communications office for the state Department of Education.
“John was looking to find some immediate help and I was incredibly interested in the opportunity,” she said Wednesday.
Finn is former deputy chief of staff for Republican Jeb Bush, who was governor of Florida from 1999-2007.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who strongly pushed White for the job, backs some of the same kind of public school changes that Bush pushed in Florida, including traditional letter grades for public schools.
Finn is supposed to work with teachers, principals, students, parents and policymakers to communicate some of the state’s key education initiatives.
She is also to redesign the department’s website.
Finn said while the job is full-time, she divides her duties between Baton Rouge and Tallahassee, Fla.
Her contract runs July 23-Nov. 30.
It can be extended to a total of three years if all the parties agree.
The former director of communications is René Greer, who was paid $110,000 per year.
Contracts that exceed $50,000 require the approval of the president of BESE.
Cope, who is leaving a job in Seattle, was hired in August to become the new executive director of BESE.
That means she is responsible for administrative and fiscal operations of the board office.
Cope will be paid $125,000 per year.
In a telephone interview, she said it was slightly awkward to discuss the issue since she has not started the job.
But Cope said the decision to hire a communications manager stemmed from talks with BESE members during the hiring process and that it would allow one person to handle duties that various officials have done.
According to the job advertisement, the BESE communications manager is supposed to “manage” media contacts, respond to press calls, “develop talking points or quotes” and work with Cope to determine the best spokesman or spokeswoman “to convey BESE’s message.”