Supt. of Education White tells BESE he is unfairly being targeted

In a sign of rising tensions over Common Core, state Superintendent of Education John White told Louisiana’s top school board Wednesday that he is being unfairly targeted personally for possible wrongdoing by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and its allies.

“I am no stranger to politics, and I know that political rhetoric can be heated,” White said in a four-page letter to members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“However, to have multiple officials alluding to the potential of purported and unfounded malfeasance within our agency and within my office, all within days of one another, is worthy of concern,” according to the letter.

White also took the unusual step of telling BESE members that neither he nor state Department of Education officials are guilty of any wrongdoing on travel expenses or speaking engagements.

He said he felt compelled to address the issue because, in recent days, comments by Gov. Bobby Jindal, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, Jindal’s key BESE ally Jane Smith and others have used rhetoric that has “increasingly insinuated that the department’s motivations, perhaps even my own motivations, for supporting the Common Core standards or the PARCC test questions are potentially nefarious.”

White sent his letter on the same week that Smith said controversy over Common Core test contracts could spark charges of ethics violations by White and others in the state Department of Education.

Smith cast her concerns in general terms — a posting on Facebook and a telephone interview — and did not offer any documentation.

However, she said unnamed parties are investigating whether employees of the state Department of Education acted improperly.

“There is concern about John White and possibly others that have had lodging and travel paid for by certain groups that may have been eligible to get contracts from us,” Smith said in an interview.

Asked if she believes that White ran afoul of state ethics rules, Smith said, “I am just saying that there are folks looking into that right now.

“I have not reached a conclusion,” she added. “There are folks investigating that and looking into it.”

After she lost a 2011 run for the state Senate, Jindal named Smith as deputy secretary for the state Department of Revenue, and she also served as acting secretary for a time.

She is now part-time liaison for legislative affairs at the agency.

White cited Smith’s Facebook posting in his letter as one example of what he called unfounded allegations.

The superintendent said he typically pays for travel expenses with a personal credit card, and then provides a receipt to his assistant to seek reimbursement from the state.

“In the event the expense incurred was in partnership or in the service of an organization not prohibited by state law from making a donation, and in the event that organization offers to donate the cost of travel expenses, the organization provides a donation to the state in the amount of my travel expenses,” he wrote.

“I file the appropriate form at that time with the Board of Ethics, notifying them of such a transaction, for their review,” according to the letter.

White said the state has gotten reimbursements from the PARCC — Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — testing consortium for travel expenses as part of the state’s Memorandum of Understanding with the group, which has a federal grant.

He also noted that questions have been raised about donations to the state from Teach for America, which has a state contract to prepare teachers for hard-to-fill classrooms.

White said that, on three occasions as superintendent, he delivered speeches or made presentations at gatherings hosted by Teach for America and that the group then made a donation to the state for travel costs.

He said such action “is explicitly allowed under the Code of Governmental Ethics.”

In her Facebook posting earlier this week, Smith said “there is something very disturbing about an agency head and some members that are so married to Pearsons/PARCC/Common Core,” a reference to the testing consortium that state educators hope to use.

“How about some ethics violations on travel and lodging paid for by folks who got contracts from the Dept. of Education,” Smith wrote.

Lee Barrios, a former schoolteacher in St. Tammany Parish who often testifies at BESE meetings, said Wednesday that she and others may file ethics complaints naming White and others and that an announcement will be made on Thursday.

Jindal contends that Common Core has too much federal interference and that state education officials failed to follow state procurement laws in test contract plans.

White backs the standards and exams, and BESE is expected to hold a special meeting next week on whether to file a lawsuit to press ahead with the new academic goals in reading, writing and math.

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