Baptism By Fire

by Jeremy Alford

Louisiana's next superintendent of education will be forced to replace a political legend, guide Louisiana through a difficult recovery and deal with one of the most demanding jobs in the state.

There's a void at the state Department of Education. That much has been evident since early December when longtime Superintendent Cecil Picard announced his coming retirement. Although he had been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ' Lou Gehrig's disease ' for about 18 months, the time had come to start stepping back. Tears were visible when the news was announced at a recent meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Acadiana native Picard flourished under two different governors, having been appointed in 1996 under Mike Foster. He oversaw sweeping changes to Louisiana's public schools, initiated tougher testing, gave birth to the accountability movement and launched special classes for 4-year-olds that are being copied by other states. Prior to this leadership role, he was a state senator, principal and teacher. Unlike many other bureaucrats, Picard came into the job with hands-on experience.

Knowing there was no treatment or cure for his disease, Picard returned to his Lafayette home late last year following his announcement of a May 1 retirement. To keep abreast of work at the department, Picard calls into Baton Rouge almost daily. However, he is no longer accepting media interviews and considers his current medical condition to be private, says Meg Casper, department spokeswoman.

The 11-member BESE is charged with replacing Picard, but no decision has been made as to how the search should proceed. Furthermore, according to board president Linda Johnson of Plaquemine, no official applications have been submitted for the job. It's a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort right now, mainly carried by whispers and private phone calls. One possible successor is reportedly House Speaker Joe Salter, a term-limited Democrat who formerly served as assistant superintendent for Sabine Parish. Carole Wallin, the department's deputy secretary, is also reportedly in the running.

Johnson says the board will discuss the matter at its meeting this month. Possibilities include a national search or promoting someone from inside the department. Either way, it will be an unprecedented appointment. If a new superintendent is selected in the coming months, that successor may have to go through further interviews next year, because eight new board members will be elected in the fall and take office in January 2008. "They could then decide to go with someone else, or they could keep them in place," Johnson says.

She says the next superintendent should be prepared to continue reforms initiated under the previous administration and be a vocal champion of education accountability. A keen eye should also be given to closing the learning gap between ethnicities. And the board needs to fast-track the selection process. "You want to put your money on something that isn't temporary or an interim," Johnson says. "That can be a hindrance."

The next superintendent will also be faced with addressing the challenge of operating a statewide school system with growing needs even though the number of students is decreasing. If Louisiana's devastating out-migration trend wasn't enough to drive down college enrollment and thin the pipeline of incoming high school grads, the state's top education officials also contend the slow pace of recovery is making a major dent as well.

Federal funding is on the line, along with the state's reputation, and the ongoing problems could cause Louisiana to slip further down the ranks in various lists. Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Savoie says it will be a long haul back up. "Our supply of high school graduates has been steadily declining since about 2000," he says. "That decline was accelerated by the storms, and it looks like it will be several years before graduation numbers recover."

It's anticipated that the end of the next school year will see 3,000 fewer high school graduates in the state. Additionally, more than 58,000 elementary and secondary school students displaced by Katrina and Rita are expected to miss enrollment next year as well. Savoie says his department is working on a number of initiatives, including alterations to current high school curriculums. Dual enrollment for high school students to take college-credit courses is in the works, as are new college prep offerings.

Research indicates, though, that the most efficient way for a state to expand access to postsecondary education is to increase its investment in student financial aid. Savoie says details are still being hammered out by BESE, but a program is in the works that will provide opportunities to the economically disadvantaged and will encourage a shared responsibility for the costs of college among the student, their family, the institution and the state.

A major push will have to be made by the next superintendent to give these initiatives legs. Johnson says BESE knows what kind of leader the state needs; the trick is identifying those candidates and convincing them to take the job. "It would just be great if we could get another Cecil again," Johnson says, "but that's not going to happen."