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Baptism by Fire

Louisiana's next superintendent of education will follow in the footsteps of a political legend and must guide the state's public school systems through the toughest of times.

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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 retirement. Although he had been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, for about 18 months, the time had come for Picard to step down. Tears were visible when the news came at a recent meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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

Today, he is living with a crippling disease. It damages nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, paralyzing many who are diagnosed with it. Knowing there was no treatment or cure, 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 no longer is accepting media interviews and considers his "medical condition" to be private, says Meg Casper, department spokesperson.

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 applications have been submitted for the job. There's a behind-the-scenes lobbying effort right now, mainly carried on 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. BESE could conduct a national search or promote someone from inside the department. Either way, Johnson says the appointment will be "unprecedented."

If a new superintendent is selected in coming months, that successor may have to go through additional interviews next year. That's 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 [the new superintendent] in place," Johnson says.

She adds that the next superintendent should continue reforms initiated under Picard, champion education accountability and understand the growing learning gap between ethnicities. Equally important, the board may want to fast track the selection process so that a new leader can take charge of an agency undergoing great change. "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 also must address the challenge of operating a statewide school system with growing needs in the face of declining enrollment. Louisiana's pre-Katrina trend of out-migration by high school graduates was already a serious problem; now top education officials must also contend with the slow pace of recovery.

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 on lists of key indicators. Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Savoie says it will be a long climb 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 Louisiana will see 3,000 fewer high school graduates at the end of the next school year. Another 58,000-plus elementary and secondary school students displaced by Katrina and Rita are expected to miss enrollment next year. Savoie says his department is working on several initiatives, including alterations to current high school curricula. Dual enrollment, which allows high school students to take college-credit courses, is in the works, as are new college prep offerings.

Research indicates that the most efficient way for a state to expand access to post-secondary education is to increase its investment in student financial aid. Savoie says one program under consideration would provide opportunities to those who are most economically disadvantaged and encourage a shared responsibility for the costs of college among students, their families, colleges and the state. Details are still being worked out, he says.

Picard's successor will have the educational equivalent of a baptism by fire. He or she will have to work harder than ever to give some of the above-mentioned initiatives a shot. Johnson says BESE knows what kind of leader the state needs; the trick is finding such a person and convincing him or her 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."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

State educatiton superintendent Cecil Picard, whose - resignation is effective in May, oversaw sweeping - changes to Louisiana's public schools, initiated tougher - testing programs, gave birth to the accountability - movement and launched special classes for 4-year-olds - that are being copied by other states. BESE now is - charged with replacing him. It won't be an easy task.
  • State educatiton superintendent Cecil Picard, whose resignation is effective in May, oversaw sweeping changes to Louisiana's public schools, initiated tougher testing programs, gave birth to the accountability movement and launched special classes for 4-year-olds that are being copied by other states. BESE now is charged with replacing him. It won't be an easy task.

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