Elected superintendent bill rejected

Despite scathing criticism of Louisiana’s education landscape, a Senate panel Wednesday rejected a proposal that would let voters decide whether to elect the state superintendent of education.

State Sen. Robert Kostelka, R-Monroe and sponsor of Senate Bill 41, repeatedly blasted state Superintendent of Education John White, who is appointed.

“If someone wants to elect someone as bad as John White, they can do it,” Kostelka told the Senate Education Committee.

But the proposed ballot measure failed, with two senators voting “yes” and four voting “no.”

Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which appointed White, said the state’s biggest public school gains in the past decade took place under appointed superintendents.

“The evidence seems to be that not electing is working,” Roemer said.

He added, “We take the job of appointing the superintendent seriously.”

Kostelka’s bill also was opposed by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office.

Jindal was one of White’s earliest proponents, and BESE named him to the post after the governor made clear that White was his choice.

Kostelka said submitting the issue to voters makes sense in today’s education environment.

“The buzzword in education is choice,” he said. “This resolution gives real choice to all the people.”

Kostelka also called BESE a “rubber stamp,” and he and other critics noted that White is not from Louisiana.

Stephanie Payne, an employee of the Lincoln Parish school system, said turning the issue over to voters “is the ultimate parental choice” and would ensure that a state resident holds the job.

Michael Faulk, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said 35 of the state’s 70 local superintendents who responded to a survey said they would favor voters picking the state superintendent of education.

Faulk’s group endorsed Kostelka’s proposal.

But state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, where Faulk is superintendent, praised Faulk’s work but said he is not from Central and likely would not have been elected to the job.

Asked if he wanted to respond to the criticism by Kostelka and others, John White said in a text message, “I’m not interested in name calling. We need to start working together if we’re going to put children in this state on a level playing field with kids across America.”

Critics noted that most local superintendents, like White, are appointed by boards.

They also said that, while state superintendents are elected in 13 states, most of the rest are named by boards or governors of those states.

Kostelka said the issue warrants special attention because White is paid $275,000 per year compared with $130,000 for the governor, $115,000 for the lieutenant governor and $150,00 for the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Lottie Beebe, a BESE member and frequent White critic, also backed the bill.

Beebe said that when White was hired, qualified in-state applicants were given little notice.

Roemer said that, years ago, he remembers sitting in on a meeting when a candidate was mapping out plans to run for state superintendent of education when the post was an elected one.

“At no time did they talk about educating kids,” Roemer said. “They talked about how to get votes, they talked about raising money.”

State Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, a member of the committee, said much of the criticism aired at the committee meeting focused on public school policies enacted by elected state officials, including the Legislature.

Voting YES to letting voters decide whether the state superintendent of education should be an elected job (2): State Sens. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte; and Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe.

Voting NO on SB41 (4): State Sens. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge; Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas; and Bodi White, R-Central.