EBR’s Taylor blasts White for releasing audit before briefing him

East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Bernard Taylor came out swinging Monday, criticizing state Superintendent of Education John White for a “lack of professional courtesy” in failing to brief him in advance on a much-publicized audit of four years worth of graduation records.

“I shouldn’t have to read about this first in the press,” Taylor told a group of reporters early Monday morning.

But later in the day, after finally meeting, both Taylor and White said they had a productive session.

They agreed the school system should pursue a plan to correct the problems uncovered in the audit, including a finding that some students earned grades or credits that differed from those the school system later reported to the state.

Other local elected leaders sympathetic to the school system are still expressing hard feelings.

“I thought it was a witch hunt from the beginning,” said Carolyn Hill, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who also met Monday with White.

State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who was briefed Friday with two other legislators, said she doesn’t condone what the audit found, but she’s worried the state is singling out East Baton Rouge Parish.

“In urban areas where you have a large number of children who move in and out, you are going to find similar issues and they need to be looked at statewide rather than just looking at one district,” Smith said.

The audit, made public Sunday night, suggests many students the parish school system listed as transferring elsewhere should be reclassified as dropouts.

The audit probes deeply into a case that sparked the investigation: that of a student allowed to graduate despite lacking the necessary credits.

In its official six-page response, the school system said the audit either lacked documentation to confirm the findings, or that the problems presented were likely the result of unintentional mistakes.

Taylor reiterated that Monday morning in a talk with the Baton Rouge Area Association of Black Journalists.

“There is nothing in that report that speaks of malfeasance or people cooking the books,” Taylor said. “What we’re talking about is human error.”

The school system is questioning a finding that senior leadership took “inappropriate action” in dealing with a student from Glen Oaks High School who shouldn’t have been allowed to graduate, saying the finding was “rife with inaccuracies.” White said he stands by what’s in the audit.

White has sent copies of the audit to the state inspector general and the legislative auditor for possible further investigation. White said he wants them to dig deeper than his agency can into specific areas of potential wrongdoing, including possible falsified records, destroyed records and potential misuse of public funds.

Taylor said White apologized to him Monday for not briefing him in advance, but White said he didn’t go that far.

“I may have said something to the effect that I am sorry if he feels disrespected, but I do not recall the specifics of the discussion to that extent,” White said.

White defended briefing in advance School Board President David Tatman and Vice President Tarvald Smith rather than Taylor, because the superintendent’s staff were the subject of the audit.

In any case, White said, the department doesn’t normally brief the subjects of records audits.

As far as the portion of the audit probing the unnamed graduate of Glen Oaks High, White offered another reason for not briefing Taylor in advance: “Because some accounts conflicted with one another, we thought it best to provide the information to the board and to ask them to communicate with staff as they saw fit.”

White said the records check portion of the audit is similar to others his agency has conducted over the years. The extent of the probe into the Glen Oaks High graduate was not common, he acknowledged.

Hill said she’s puzzled as to why the complaint about this graduate would generate so much scrutiny.

“I can’t tell you how many complaints I’ve seen about things happening in Orleans Parish,” she said. “None of them have gotten to that level (of state investigation).”

One of the more explosive allegations is that a school system employee was directed to delete emails related to the Glen Oaks High student situation, something White said was confirmed by several witnesses. The emails were relevant, and the issue raised a “red flag” that inappropriate, perhaps worse, behavior occurred, he said.

White admitted the directive was issued in the fall, before the state began looking into the issue. White also said the staff person in question preserved copies of the emails, though White’s team didn’t obtain copies of them.

“This is not a criminal investigation with a search for evidence validating crimes,” he said. “If investigative agencies wish to seek such evidence, they may.”