Despite earlier comments, governor stands down on bid to replace Education Superintendent John White

Gov. John Bel Edwards is putting off his vow to try to replace state Superintendent of Education John White, officials familiar with the situation said.

Edwards, who took office on Monday, made clear during the campaign that he wants White out.

“I have no intention of allowing John White, who isn’t qualified to be a middle school principal, to remain as superintendent,” he said in June.

But after a private post-election meeting between the pair, any push to remove the superintendent is on hold — at least for now.

Asked if Edwards would comment, his office issued a prepared statement from spokesman Richard Carbo.

“Gov. Edwards is committed to ensuring that the needs of our students and teachers are met,” the statement said. “He met with Superintendent White after the election and will continue to keep an open line of communication going forward regarding how to best address ongoing needs and improve the state’s educational system.”

White, who has said repeatedly that he wants to stay, had little to say on the matter during a break in last week’s meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which makes the decision on whether to keep him.

“If given the chance to serve because the board wants me to serve, I will continue to serve,” he said.

White, who is paid $275,000 a year, said he is now working on a month-to-month contract.

Edwards’ new stance stems in part from the fact that self-styled education reformers, who often clash with Edwards’ political allies, retained control of BESE after last year’s elections.

It would take eight votes on the 11-member board to replace White and eight to hire a new superintendent. No such supermajorities exist now.

The governor and Legislature also face a $1.9 billion budget shortfall over the next 18 months, another reason that any push to replace White is on the back burner.

White, the former superintendent of the Recovery School District, was pushed for the top education job for months by former Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican. However, as Democrat Edwards is discovering, a governor can face huge obstacles getting his pick for superintendent into the job.

Jindal, in an unusual move for any governor, spent months in 2011 campaigning for BESE candidates so he could line up a pro-White majority on the board. His push paid off, and White, then a Jindal ally, landed the job in 2012.

White, a former high school English teacher, has gotten three favorable job reviews from BESE since then, though he and Jindal later split.

He received his undergraduate degree in English from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in public administration from New York University, and he is the former deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education.

The superintendent is a longtime advocate of school policies vehemently opposed by Edwards and some of his key allies, including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators.

White backs Common Core, charter schools and revamped teacher evaluations, which put him at odds with Edwards when the governor was a member of the House Education Committee.

As governor, Edwards names three members to BESE.

While his three choices are respected in education circles, none are known as education firebrands likely to lead an early charge to dump White.

“I want time to analyze it,” Thomas Roque, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Alexandria and one of the governor’s three picks, said when asked about the superintendent’s future.

Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school district and another Edwards appointee, said she has not discussed the subject with the governor or White.

Elected BESE member Kathy Edmonston, who lives in Gonzales and is seen as generally aligned with Edwards’ forces, said she had heard the governor would not be pushing to find a new superintendent.

Edmonston, a critic of White and Common Core, said that while standing pat with the superintendent is not her preference, she can work with him.

Others said stability is preferred.

“This isn’t the time to change leadership or direction, given all the progress we’ve made so far,” said Eva Kemp, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform-Louisiana.

However, White’s critics in the Legislature — a product of Common Core and other disputes — may try to pass legislation aimed at removing the superintendent. Adding new education requirements for the job and taking the unusual step of making any revamped rules retroactive have been mentioned.

White spent months battling Jindal, a Common Core backer-turned-opponent, over the merits of the overhaul.

That sparked speculation that it was just a matter of time before he found another job outside of Louisiana.

White, who is from Washington, D.C., insists he wants to stay.

“I have a great affection for this place,” he said in September.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog/.

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