After a four-month hunt in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana’s top school board is poised to name a new state superintendent of education.

Six finalists are in the mix, but two educators who represent different wings of the public schools debate remain favorites for the job, which is set to be filled on May 20.

They are Assistant State Superintendent of Education Jessica Baghian, who is seen as the favorite of school overhaul advocates, and Jefferson Parish schools superintendent Cade Brumley, who is believed to the choice of fellow superintendents, school board members and teacher unions.

The question is whether Baghian or Brumley can win the minimum eight votes needed for the job from the 11-member state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or whether a compromise candidate emerges.

Those who will make the call are saying little in public.

"The BESE members are keeping it very close to the vest," said Brigitte Nieland, government affairs director for the advocacy group Stand for Children.

None of the candidates have locked up the job.

"We do not have eight votes for any of the top candidates," said Sandy Holloway, president of BESE.

BESE member Kira Orange Jones, who leads the work group that has led the search, said it is unclear whether the race remains wide open or a consensus is developing.

"The truth is I don't know," Jones said. "It is hard to say. I think board members are certainly deliberating."

One of the other contenders, former St. James Parish schools superintendent Lonnie Luce, is mentioned as a dark horse candidate.

Luce, 51, also led the state's first online charter school, which means he has experience in both the traditional and new public school camps.

The other finalists are Heather Poole, 46, executive vice-chancellor of Central Louisiana Technical Community College in Alexandria; Joe Siedlecki, 44, associate commissioner for school system support, innovation and charters, Texas Education Agency and Paul Vallas, 66, former superintendent of the Recovery School District.

Holloway and others hope to agree on a superintendent on May 20, so he or she can be confirmed by the state Senate before adjournment on June 1.

At stake is one of the most powerful jobs in state government, and the leader of roughly 720,000 public school students.

The superintendent carries out BESE policies.

But the post also carries a huge influence in shaping student testing, teacher training and evaluations, whether charter schools flourish or flounder, school ratings, the role of vouchers and the direction of public schools after two decades of sweeping changes.

All eight of BESE's elected members were backed by business groups, which would seem to favor Baghian, 35, since business has generally backed the push to overhaul public schools since 2000.

But four panelists are new to the panel, and Gov. John Bel Edwards' three appointees are expected to back Brumley, 39, or another contender seen as sympathetic to traditional public school groups.

The hunt for former Superintendent John White's successor – the first of its kind in decades – began in January when Holloway named a four-person working group to lead the way.

"Our previous plan was one-on-ones or coffee times with the candidates," Holloway said. "That didn't happen."

The original hiring date was April 20-21, but that meeting was postponed by the pandemic.

Plans to trim the list of finalists to two or three, followed by face-to-face interviews, were also scrapped amid the fallout from the virus.

The coronavirus pandemic that closed classrooms nine weeks ahead of schedule also forced BESE to conduct virtual interviews of roughly 100 minutes each with the six finalists, which was pared from an initial field of nearly two dozen.

Since then BESE members have been engaging in one-on-one phone calls with the candidates, either independently or with the help of the state's search firm.

Jim Garvey, a Metairie attorney and the longest-serving member of BESE, said he has chatted with all six finalists.

"I think as of today it is still fairly wide open," Garvey said, adding that he thinks a consensus will emerge "pretty quickly" after all the background checks, review of public surveys and other steps are done.

"The attempt will be to go from six to one, which is fairly ambitious but not impossible," he said.

Holloway said she has two leaders – she did not identify them – but is still doing research.

BESE's inability to agree on a superintendent is nothing new.

White spent the last four years of his eight-year tenure working on a month-to-month contract because BESE lacked the votes to extend his contract or replace him.

In 2011 then Gov. Bobby Jindal took the unusual step of campaigning for BESE candidates statewide to get the critical votes needed for White's hiring.

Leaders of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and the Louisiana School Boards Association, whose members are generally believed to back Brumley, have encouraged the rank-and-file to fill out BESE surveys on the job and to make their specific views known.

Brumley's name has been mentioned more than the other five in the surveys.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, which has not endorsed a candidate, took exception to Brumley's comment that he favors charter schools authorized by local school boards over those endorsed by BESE.

Advocates of charter schools, which are public schools run by non-governmental boards, view BESE-approved charters as a vital lifeline to counter local resistance to competing school models.

The group sent a clip of Brumley's comments to members, and a letter to BESE members that said picking a leader who does not embrace state-authorized charter schools would be "deeply concerning."

Caroline Roemer, executive director of the group, said Brumley's comments appeared to confirm the view that district superintendents believe "the best charter is the local charter."

"But I did not tell my membership not to support him," Roemer said.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.