BR.testscores.081221 0152 bf.jpg (copy)

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley.

The clash between the president of Louisiana's top school board and state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley is raising questions about their all-important working relationship.

"It is like there is no trust there at all," said Linda Johnson, who served on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for 12 years, including three as president.

BESE President Sandy Holloway and the rest of the board on Nov. 11 asked Louisiana Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack to investigate emergency contracts issued by the state Department of Education. 

Brumley, clearly miffed, demanded that Holloway produce proof of the charges the next day, which Holloway rebuffed.

Waguespack has not offered any timeline on how long the probe will take, which means the issue will be hovering over their day-to-day dealings indefinitely.

The split comes amid a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for gains in Louisiana using $4 billion in federal dollars aimed at repairing public school problems triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

State education leaders are also scrambling to make up for wholesale learning loss highlighted by a drop in key state test scores statewide.

BESE hires and fires superintendents.

It is like an 11-member board of directors with Brumley as the CEO. He was picked in May, 2020, with Holloway casting the deciding votes after two tense rounds of balloting.

But in recent months they have had public disputes over how to quarantine students, the launch of Louisiana's first accountability system for K-2 students and how public schools should be rated.

The ability of the superintendent and BESE president to work closely together is one of the keys to the state's education progress, according to officials familiar with the setup.

That requires trust, the knowledge that department initiatives are backed by the superintendent and for the state's 69 local superintendents to know they are getting the same message from the superintendent and BESE.

Gary Jones, another former BESE president, said "very close cooperation" is needed between the board and the superintendent, including periodic meetings to go over meeting agendas.

"It is very unusual for them to get crossways," Jones said.

BESE next meets Dec. 14-15.

The investigation touches on a variety of volatile issues.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Holloway said the board has reason to believe some of the emergency contracts authorized by Gov. John Bel Edwards because of the pandemic may have been issued or paid without approval from the board or its president.

At least one, to Invicta Consulting LLC, is a $120,000 agreement that was not signed by Holloway or approved by BESE and for which $60,000 has already been paid, according to state records.

Brumley's circle is especially incensed that BESE's letter to Waguespack cites a state law on misappropriation of public funds.

"Anyone who knows me through my tenure knows how much the stewardship of public dollars means to me," said Brumley, formerly superintendent of the Jefferson and DeSoto parishes school districts.

The seriousness of the allegation requires quick disclosure on what is behind it, according to backers of the superintendent.

Johnson, who lives in Plaquemine, worked with three superintendents and said that while disagreements were common so was keeping them private.

She said she could not have envisioned an episode during her tenure that would have caused BESE to request an investigation.

Johnson worked with former Superintendents Cecil J. Picard, Paul Pastorek and Ollie Tyler.

"We always had a working relationship that is kind of different from what I am seeing now," she said. "I never had what I am seeing in the paper."

Holloway and Brumley said they can work together.

"There is a working relationship," she said.

Said Brumley, "It is in the best interest of Louisiana children for us to work together."

"While we don't always agree we have a working relationship and are moving the agenda forward," he added.

Advocacy groups are watching.

"The needs of our students should trump all else," according to a statement by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

"Kids are falling behind, and that is not acceptable." 

"It's time for a commitment to accountability and a renewed focus on remediation."

"We stand ready to work with anyone to get that done and we hope BESE and the department can do that also."


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.