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State Superintendent of Education John White makes a point while speaking at the annual meeting of Jump Start, which allows high school students to get workforce training in addition to regular academic classes, Tuesday Jan. 23, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

Incumbents who hope to return to Louisiana's top school board say resolving the job future of state Superintendent of Education John White should be a top priority when the new board convenes in January.

"If I am back, we will deal with John White's contract very quickly," said Jim Garvey, a BESE member who lives in Metairie and is one of five current members who qualified for re-election last week.

White, who is paid $275,000 per year, has operated on a month-to-month contract since January 2016 because of an impasse on the board over any contract extension.

How the issue will be resolved is unclear.

The 11-member panel may undergo heavy changes in the Oct. 12 primary and Nov. 16 runoff, and in the three members named by the governor.

Only one member, Tony Davis, of Natchitoches, is sure to be back. Davis, a White ally, drew no opponent during the three-day filing period that ended on Thursday.

A total of 17 candidates lined up against the other four incumbents and for the three open seats on BESE.

Whether Gov. John Bel Edwards would rename his three current appointees if he wins a second term is unclear. If Edwards loses, those three are certain to be replaced.

White, who has held the job since 2012, is the longest continuously serving superintendent in the nation despite high-profile battles with Edwards and former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

He generally enjoys the support on key issues of at least seven BESE members, including Davis and the four incumbents who drew challengers.

At least eight votes on the board are needed to extend the superintendent's contract, fire him or name a replacement.

White, who has won positive job reviews from BESE for six consecutive years, is set to undergo evaluation No. 7 on Wednesday.

But after being shelved for years, some BESE veterans say the contract issue needs to be resolved.

"I feel that we owe it to our state to really sit down and talk," said Sandy Holloway, a BESE member from Thibodaux who faces one opponent in the Oct. 12 primary. "It is time to make a decision there," said Holloway.

Davis also said the issue needs needs closure. "Something will give one way or another," he said.

Holly Boffy, the board's vice president, said White's contract needs to be resolved by the new board. Boffy, who lives in Youngsville, noted that the makeup of the board will determine the superintendent's future.

BESE member Kira Orange Jones, who has three challengers, made the same point. "We have got to wait and see what the will of the board will be," Jones said.

Asked for comment, White said in an email, "Serving Louisiana's children has been the professional honor of a lifetime. I will continue my service until BESE tells me otherwise."

All four incumbents on the Oct. 12 primary ballot are touting some of the same education gains that White cites.

The list includes Louisiana's improved high school graduation rate — 81.4% — and increases in the number of college-eligible high school graduates and those earning college credit in high school.

"We have produced what I would say are tremendous results over the past six years," said Garvey, who said White deserves a contract extension.

However, a sampling of opinions among those who signed up last week to run for BESE showed a wide range of views on the superintendent.

Stephen Chapman, an Alexandria dentist who is running for the BESE seat being vacated by panel president Gary Jones, has served on the Rapides Parish School Board for 17 years and has seen the state-mandated changes implemented in those schools.

"If we are judging John White on the programs Rapides Parish put in place and actually promoted, then I would say he is a doing a good job," Chapman said after qualifying.

Vereta Lee, who is running for the BESE post being vacated by Jada Lewis, said there had to be a breakdown on BESE for White to be working with a month-to-month contract. "I have some concerns about what he is doing," said Lee, who served on the East Baton Parish School Board for 12 years.

Jonathan Loveall, assistant principal of Jackson Elementary School in Jackson, is running for the same District 8 seat. Asked about White's status, he said Louisiana needs "fresh solutions" for education issues.

Ronnie Morris, an engineer who is running for the BESE post being vacated by Kathy Edmonston, said in an email that Louisiana's superintendent should be an effective communicator "and someone whose name is routinely used in the same sentence as the word 'brilliant.'"

Janice Perea, a Houma schoolteacher who is running against Holloway, said BESE needs to deal with White's contract.

"Honestly, I feel like we might need somebody new to fill that position who can do more things to help public educators and to lift us out from the bottom," Perea said, referring to education rankings in which Louisiana does badly.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.