BY WILL SENTELL | STAFF WRITER | The Advocate
Assistant State Superintendent of Education Jessica Baghian, center, talks to three year old Lillian W education leaders and local policymakers to the early childhood education center at Close to Hom Lafayette La
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.