Our Views: Filling two education posts

State officials have two top education posts to fill this year. We hope that they conduct thorough, transparent searches to find the right candidates for these important positions.

Last October, Joe May, president of Louisiana’s community and technical college system, announced he had accepted a job leading the Dallas County Community College District in Texas.

Last month, Jim Purcell, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, announced he won’t seek to have his contract renewed when it expires in March.

May and Purcell helped guide Louisiana’s post-secondary education policy at an especially difficult time for the state’s education institutions. Public colleges and universities have been deeply challenged by cuts in state funding. That’s meant lots of hard choices for both May and Purcell.

May’s stewardship of the community and technical college system proved controversial. He pushed a bill through the Legislature authorizing community and technical colleges to borrow more than $250 million for 28 construction projects around the state, including plans to improve facilities at Baton Rouge Community College and Delgado Community College in New Orleans.

In advancing the bill, May essentially cut a separate deal with lawmakers for capital improvements, a break with protocol that raised eyebrows.

Purcell criticized the legislation, saying that it would essentially burden all of higher education with $20 million in annual debt payments over the next 20 years.

Purcell has had his own share of controversies during his time as the state’s chief policy leader for public higher education. He took issue with cuts to higher education for hurting the state’s ability to produce skilled workers. Last year, a group of Republican lawmakers accused Jindal of trying to have Purcell fired. Purcell’s employer, the Louisiana Board of Regents, later gave Purcell a glowing performance review.

The controversies surrounding May’s and Purcell’s leadership underscore the need for openness as officials seek replacements for the two education leaders. The ongoing debates about the future of post-secondary education in Louisiana have been heated precisely because the stakes are so high.

Louisiana needs strong, creative administrators to fill May’s and Purcell’s shoes. Transparent searches are the best way to ensure the public that the best candidates are selected for these important posts. We hope that officials make the names of all candidates for these posts public in a timely manner, and we hope that the search process includes public interviews of the finalists.

Louisiana’s community and technical colleges, as well as its other public colleges and universities, need public support now more than ever.

The best way to gain that support is to involve taxpayers as participants in key decisions, not bystanders.