School leaders defend state contracts

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK - State Superintendent of Education John White fielded questions for about four hours from the House Appropriations Committee, which is reviewing Gov. Bobby Jindal's $24.7 billion operating budget proposal.  State Superintendent of Education John White answers questions Wednesday on failing schools during a meeting of House Appropriations. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK - State Superintendent of Education John White fielded questions for about four hours from the House Appropriations Committee, which is reviewing Gov. Bobby Jindal's $24.7 billion operating budget proposal. State Superintendent of Education John White answers questions Wednesday on failing schools during a meeting of House Appropriations.

A Louisiana legislative leader and top state educators disagreed Wednesday on whether contracts used by the state Department of Education are getting enough scrutiny.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, said the state’s top school board is supposed to oversee details of department-approved contracts.

“I’m not sure that difference is there,” Fannin said, a reference to what he called questionable reviews by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

But BESE President Chas Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge, said he reviews virtually all of the contracts and others take part, too.

“The idea that there is not scrutiny is not a fair characterization of it,” Roemer told the panel.

“I would say there is separation,” Roemer said, a reference to checks done by BESE after the department submits the agreements.

The issue arose during a five-hour review of the state Department of Education’s planned spending for the financial year that begins July 1.

Fannin’s panel is examining budget proposals for a wide range of state agencies in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed $24.7 billion operating budget.

The 2013 regular legislative session begins Monday.

State Superintendent of Education John White told Fannin and other lawmakers that department contracts “adhere to whatever the legal protocol is.”

White said 63 percent of the $41 million of such agreements this year rely on federal funds and 16 percent involve inter-agency transfers. About 20 percent of the total involve state general revenue and other sources, he said.

However, Fannin said BESE members have told him that “there is no way we can look at them in the time frame” allowed. He remains convinced that the department is relying on contracts for work that could be handled in-house, he said.

Fannin said such spending is especially frustrating when it involves work that used to be handled by employees the Legislature has eliminated.

Roemer said BESE’s contract review is more than just an approval process. “It is a way for us to scrutinize,” he said.

Not all such agreements spark debate on the board, Roemer said. “But many do,” he said.

White said contracts range from millions of dollars for school construction in New Orleans to agreements worth a few thousand dollars for professional development workshops.

In other areas, the panel criticized parts of the $3.4 billion public school funding plan — it is called the Minimum Foundation Program — approved by BESE and sent to the Legislature.

Fannin questioned the lack of requirements in this year’s MFP proposal that 70 percent of the funds be used for instruction and that 50 percent of new funds be used for teacher pay increases.

White said the omissions are a response to legislative requests for BESE to simply submit a funding formula, not to prescribe details on how the money should be spent.

White disputed Fannin’s comments that, in the past, the department has sought excess funds to avoid making midyear requests to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.