Whenever comic icon Lucille Ball got into farcical trouble on the old I Love Lucy series, husband Desi Arnaz would exclaim, “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do!”
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is having a Lucy moment this week, being called to explain multiple follies, mostly committed in the name of “choice,” but some as what might be considered fraud.
First, the fraud-y stuff.
NOLA.com reporter Lauren McGaughy writes that BESE member Walter Lee has apparently been double billing the DeSoto Parish School Board – where he was superintendent of schools – and BESE for travel expenses. He also allegedly got sweetheart deals on buy-backs of parish-owned vehicles. And he “determined his own pay raises, granting himself substantial salary increases that conflicted with recommendations by the system's business director.”
BESE President Chas Roemer says he will take “appropriate action” and ask for repayment and maybe censure of the 13-year veteran BESE member.
More travel news comes from Louisiana’s indispensible investigative journalist, Tom Aswell. His Louisiana Voice reports that seven Department of Education employees with a combined income topping $1 million are driving large, courtesy of the state.
In just over a year, those seven high rollers ran up $63,700 in car rental fees, not including fuel. Aswell reports that “they have been cruising around town in vehicles like Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Liberty, Jeep Compass, GMC Terrain, Nissan Murano, Chevrolet Yukon, and Cadillac Escalade at monthly rentals as high as $1,450.”
“These Enterprise rentals,” Aswell writes, “ are not the occasional rentals for quick one- or two-day trips on departmental business; they are perks by every definition of the word—used year-round, nights and weekends, for personal use as well as the occasional business-related trip. And perks are taxable in-kind income.”
On to the “choice” parade of sleazy hits:
The biggest slam on BESE’s credibility as an agent of reform came from Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera. This article by NOLA.com reporter Danielle Dreilinger quotes the state official as saying that Gov. Jindal’s voucher program “doesn't have enough safeguards to ensure participating private schools spend public money properly and educate the students they admit.”
Because LFT and others filed a successful lawsuit against the state, vouchers have to be funded outside the Minimum Foundation Program, with a line item in the general fund budget. This year, that amounts to nearly $45 million divided among 118 private and religious schools. More than 6,700 students participate.
While State Superintendent of Education John White contends that the state has sufficient safeguards to protect parents and taxpayers, Purpera disagreed.
"Without specific criteria, LDOE cannot ensure it is holding schools accountable for their academic performance and treating schools consistently," Purpera wrote.
The state could have been saved the trouble, as this report from KATC-TV in Lafayette notes. Over a year ago, the LFT urged BESE to adopt a more stringent accountability procedure for the voucher program. Our effort was rebuffed.
As LFT President Steve Monaghan said, “This sent a very clear signal. The mission of the department of education was to champion vouchers and privatization by any means necessary, and that’s why more than a year later we have audit report stating the obvious, and what we had attempted to fix in October 2012.”
While we’re on the subject of accountability, BESE recently adopted a blanket renewal for many charter schools around the state. Just six days later, the FBI raided Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School for as-yet unknown reasons, according to this story by Advocate reporters Charles Lussiere and Will Sentell.
Kenilworth is under the auspices of The Pelican Educational Foundation, which is apparently linked to a shadowy Turkish outfit known as the Gulen movement. In 2011, the Pelican Foundation’s charter for Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans was revoked for “allegations of inappropriate use of school space for religious processions, concealing student-on-student sexual harassment and intimidating teachers."
In this WBRZ-TV report by Rob Krieger, BESE President Chas Roemer wonders if Kenilworth violated the terms of its charter.
Maybe these scandalous episodes are the natural outcome of the veil of secrecy that shrouds BESE and the Department of Education. Countless public information requests have been ignored, leading Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss to include Louisiana in her list of states in which education policy “is increasingly being made in secret or without public input — and with a lot of private philanthropic money.
“In Louisiana,” she wrote, “the 19th Judicial District Court recently ruled that the state Department of Education does not have to provide researchers with raw data that would help them determine if school reform efforts are working — and can pick and choose to whom it provides the information. The court ruled that the data is not subject to the Public Records Act, according to Research on Reforms, Inc., which sued the department for the information. The suit was filed after the organization requested raw data and was denied it — even though the department had given it to other researchers already.
Finally, there is this week’s revelation that a voucher school in Baton Rouge subjects potential teachers to an inquisition before they can be hired, reported here by The Advocate’s Will Sentell.
Hosanna Christian Academy requires teachers to answer invasive, personal questions about their religious faith, living arrangements and private lives – questions that no other employer, public or private, would be allowed to ask.
The Statement of Faith on the application expresses a clear preference for dunking over sprinkling where baptism is concerned. That the applicant is expected to be of the Christian faith is not in doubt.
All of which might be okay, except that the school derives most of its income from public tax dollars in the form of vouchers. The state pays tuition for about 460 of the school’s 675 students. Last year, Hosanna collected $1.4 million in public funds.
That led LFT President Steve Monaghan to say, “We understand the church’s desire to hire whomever they wish. We do not believe that the taxpayer dollars should be used for such discriminatory employment practices, however.”
“Those kinds of issues consumed Europe in religious wars for centuries,” Monaghan said. “That is precisely why the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment erects a wall of separation between church and state. That is why no public funds should be provided to institutions with religious preconditions for employment.”
No official response from BESE was forthcoming. According to Sentell, “Chas Roemer, president of BESE, was unavailable for comment and his message mailbox was full.”