BESE seeks counsel to fight for Common Core

BESE starts hearing on future of academic standards

Louisiana’s top School Board on Tuesday voted 6-3 to hire special legal counsel in its bid to implement Common Core tests that Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes.

But the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education stopped short of authorizing any legal action for now, in part because some panel members said they do not want to sue the governor.

In addition, BESE voted without objection to order talks between state Superintendent of Education John White and Jindal’s office in a bid to resolve the dispute.

White is then supposed to provide an update on any progress in the standoff by July 18.

The hiring of any special counsel would have to be approved by state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office.

BESE President Chas Roemer said two law firms — one each in Baton Rouge and New Orleans — have offered to do the work without charge.

Roemer said the board, which sets policies for about 700,000 students statewide, needs clarity on whether it can proceed with test plans that go with Common Core, which is supposed to be in classrooms for the 2014-15 school year. “For us to seek legal remedies, we need legal counsel,” he said.

“Look, I’m not excited about this,” said Roemer, a former ally of Jindal.

Allies of the governor argued that it made no sense to order negotiations between educators and Jindal’s office while also threatening legal action.

“Everything does not have to be settled in a court of law,” said BESE member Jane Smith, a Jindal appointee and the leader of efforts to curb any legal action.

One thing that is clear: What and whether standardized tests will be given for the upcoming school year is unknown.

All the arguments took place in an auditorium crowded with Common Core backers and opponents who have been testifying on the issue for months.

As the nearly six-hour meeting went on, audience members yelled comments frequently, and both sides loudly applauded when spokesmen for their sides made points.

Also, Roemer and top Jindal aide Stafford Palmieri engaged in lengthy, biting verbal exchanges, and BESE members variously criticized White and each other.

The latest battle over Common Core stems from a series of steps that Jindal announced June 18, which are aimed at shelving BESE-backed test plans that go with the standards.

Jindal said BESE and the White-led state Department of Education failed to follow state procurement laws in moving to require tests prepared by a consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

The governor’s lieutenants the same day ordered the suspension of a state contract that White said he planned to use to push ahead with exam plans.

White on Tuesday said the dispute boils down to whether state purchasing officials or educators will drive Louisiana’s academic policies.

“Is it those that write the contract or those that regulate the education system,” he said.

“Regarding the governor’s executive orders, we need clarity on how to proceed,” White said. “When you don’t have clarity on who is in the driver’s seat you have no plan at all.”

The resolution on the hiring of special legal counsel initially would have paved the way for legal action.

White mentioned the possibility of seeking a declaratory judgement on whether the Jindal administration can put the brakes on a testing contract that education officials think they can use for Common Core tests.

However, even longtime Common Core backers were clearly uneasy with authorizing court action.

Connie Bradford, who lives in Ruston and is one of three Jindal appointees to BESE, said she did not want to sue the governor.

In a rare appearance before BESE, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, whose division has suspended approval of the key test contract in dispute, said state officials never approved amendments that made clear they would be used for Common Core during the 2014-15 school year.

Nichols said the issue should have been aired in the winter of 2013.

“Today’s action boils down to one simple thing: BESE voted to hire outside counsel to determine if the Department of Education should follow state procurement law,” Nichols said in a prepared statement.

“We think the law should be followed,” according to the statement.

In an interview after the meeting, White’s called BESE’s actions prudent.

He said while it is difficult to see how talks will produce a breakthrough “I always think it is worth continuing the communication.”

Roemer said the law firms that have offered to represent BESE without charge are Preis Gordon APLC, in Baton Rouge, and Barrasso Usdin Kupperman Freeman & Sarver LLC, in New Orleans.

Voting to hire special legal counsel were Chas Roemer, Holly Boffy, Connie Bradford, Jim Garvey, Judy Miranti and Kira Orange Jones.

Voting against the motion were Jane Smith, Lottie Beebe and Carolyn Hill.

BESE members Walter Lee and Jay Guillot missed the meeting.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/