Elected officials say EBR cheating scandal stirred up by St. George supporters, top education leaders

Advocate staff photo by GAVIN JACKSON Photo shot on 8/19/10 --- Trax #00022706A ---  Slug: solar---   A school bus drives past one of the new solar-powered school zone warning lights near Lasalle Elementary School on Lasalle Avenue in Baton Rouge on Thursday, August 19, 2010. Several schools in the area have the new solar-powered warning lights, helping kick off the new school year. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by GAVIN JACKSON Photo shot on 8/19/10 --- Trax #00022706A --- Slug: solar--- A school bus drives past one of the new solar-powered school zone warning lights near Lasalle Elementary School on Lasalle Avenue in Baton Rouge on Thursday, August 19, 2010. Several schools in the area have the new solar-powered warning lights, helping kick off the new school year.

Lawmaker suspicious of St. George ‘plot’

Several elected and community leaders in East Baton Rouge Parish blasted what they described Wednesday as erroneous media reports of a state investigation into possible widespread cheating in the parish school system, blaming both top state education leaders and St. George supporters with fomenting the controversy.

“I truly believe this is a plot,” said state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, adding the parish school system deserves an apology.

“State Superintendent (John White) should have cleared up this matter early on,” said Carolyn Hill, District 8 representative on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

On Thursday, White initiated a four-year records audit of the East Baton Rouge Parish school system as a result of a “discrepancy in graduation records,” which school system officials have identified as one student who graduated in May, but whom they later determined was one credit short.

Hill emailed White after that announcement and asked him to explain what the investigation was about. On Tuesday, Hill released her email exchange to The Advocate.

In an email to Hill sent Sunday, White said the audit is focused solely on potential problems with graduation records and was not provoked by “test scores or cheating on tests.”

Smith and Hill spoke Wednesday in the Claiborne Building, the home of the state Department of Education, surrounded by several elected officials and community leaders, including fellow BESE member Lottie Beebe, three other state representatives from Baton Rouge, the president and vice president of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board and Metro Councilwoman Denise Marcelle.

After the news conference, White repeated what he said Tuesday: He’s been clear about what his office is looking into to anyone who asks about the investigation, and he is not responsible for misinterpretations of what he has said or written.

“I can’t speak for whether there are people out there making insinuations about East Baton Rouge or other school districts, but we have an instance of a discrepancy in the records, and we are required to look into that discrepancy,” White said.

At the news conference, Belinda Davis, president of the group One Community, One School District , which was formed to fight the creation of a new breakaway school district and is now a staunch opponent of efforts to incorporate a section of the parish that would become the city of St. George, called the entire matter a “politically manufactured stunt.”

“Our school district has been the victim of sloppy, inaccurate reporting, exacerbated by the irresponsible silence of our state superintendent of education,” Davis said.

Tarvald Smith, vice president of the School Board, blamed BESE President Chas Roemer by name, saying he gave credence to the idea that this investigation was about widespread test cheating.

When asked about cheating allegations during a TV interview the day before White announced the investigation, Roemer said, “We need to do something about it. Our taxpayers deserve more than that. Our students deserve more than that.”

Roemer said Wednesday that people are reading too much into what he said.

“I didn’t do anything to try to raise anything. I responded to questions brought to me,” Roemer said. “That’s all I did.”

Roemer added there was a “discrepancy” that everyone agrees occurred and it deserves looking into.

“I don’t know how you defend altering a record,” Roemer said.

School system spokesman Keith Bromery said it’s wrong to describe the discrepancy in that manner.

“This was an error at the school level,” Bromery said. “There was no altering of any record.”

Smith said she thinks St. George backers may be behind the leak, though she admitted she has no direct evidence. She said she’s basing her allegations on Roemer’s past support for the creation of a southeast Baton Rouge school district.

She also said she was suspicious of the timing of the leak, which she said came on the heels of news stories she described as not positive toward St. George or the state Department of Education, and the media savvy of St. George supporters.

“It makes me very suspicious that someone (with St. George) is behind this story,” Smith said.

Lionel Rainey III, a spokesman for the St. George effort, said his group had nothing to do with the controversy and it’s odd that at this news conference “the topic of conversation was St. George.”

“If the Department of Education finds no wrongdoing then OK,” Rainey said. “If they do find that wrongdoing happened, then we’re the least of their concerns.”