By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

One measure of Louisiana’s high profile in the national debate over school reform is the active interest being shown by the Obama administration in who will succeed Paul Pastorek as the state’s superintendent of education.

But there are more names in circulation than Obama’s preference, newly appointed Recovery School District Superintendent John White.

Pastorek, an attorney, abruptly ended his four-year tenure in the state’s top education slot with an announcement last Friday that he was quitting to take a job with a defense contractor.

Earlier this week, the grapevine buzzed with news that Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, was on the horn with local education leaders urging them to back White, at least on an interim basis. Under that scenario, White would remain in place as RSD superintendent and do both jobs until Pastorek’s permanent replacement is hired.

White also enjoys the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal, but that doesn’t mean the interim appointment – which requires confirmation by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education –  is a done deal.

White, 35, who rocketed from the ranks of Teach for America to deputy chancellor of the New York City school system, is considered something of a whiz kid. Critics have harped on his brief time in the classroom – about three years – and non-native status. He is from Chicago where he ran Teach for America’s office while Duncan was superintendent of that city’s school system.

The board is not yet ready to vote on a successor to Pastorek, BESE President Penny Dastugue told The Lens on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, at least two other names are in circulation.

One is Ouachita Parish Superintendent of Schools Bob Webber who, on Monday, met with Jindal aide Stephen Waguespack to discuss his goals and intentions, Dastugue said.

In a statement to The Lens, Webber said:  “I have a doctorate and a specialist degree in educational administration and I have been superintendent of one of the largest and most successful school districts in Louisiana for nine and a half years,” he wrote, referring to his tenure in Ouachita Parish. “Most importantly, I love children and I am a Louisiana native.”

Another potential contender, according to BESE member Linda Johnson, of Plaquemine, is Gary Mathews, a 35-year veteran educator, who has served as head of school systems in Baton Rouge, Florida, Dallas, Virginia and Georgia, where he currently is head of the Newton County School System. Mathews is also a Louisiana native, said Johnson, one of two BESE members who got calls from Duncan urging support for White.

In response to inquiries about his interest in the position, Mathews emailed a resume to The Lens, along with this statement:

“[As] a native Louisianian, and a former teacher and superintendent in the state, I’m flattered by the number of folks who have asked me to consider returning home,” Mathews wrote. “…The state superintendent’s position is a sacred public trust which will require of its occupant instant credibility. If my background, track record in promoting student learning, and related accomplishments resonate as something that Louisiana can benefit from, I know of few others who love the state more and who would serve its children with more devotion.”

White, who arrived at his new job with the RSD less than two weeks ago, has signaled he has concerns that succeeding Pastorek even on an interim basis will cut into the close contact with schools and students in New Orleans that attracted him to the RSD position.

Johnson said Duncan called her to praise White’s background and experience but didn’t directly ask her to support him.

BESE member Louella Givens, of New Orleans, who reportedly also got a call from Duncan, did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Both Johnson and Givens abstained from voting for White for RSD superintendent. Johnson said it wasn’t because she deemed White unfit for the job. Rather, she disliked the voting procedure. Her complaint: while White was brought up to the board for consideration as RSD superintendent, his predecessor, Paul Vallas, was not.

“That had nothing to do with John White, that had to do with the process. I am very much in favor of when you make a rule you stick to that rule,” she said.

Johnson said she thinks White is “extremely bright” and has ideas for the RSD that she can support, but she questions the wisdom of moving him to the state’s top education job so quickly.

“We haven’t had a chance to see any of the work he will do with the RSD yet,” she said.

For now, the board is open to recommendations and self-nominations from all parties, Dastugue said.

“We are still in the listening phase,” Dastugue said. “The conversation has shifted away from an individual name to a profile. And I think, once we agree on what kind of leader we want, we’ll be able to choose someone.”

While the search is under way, Pastorek’s duties will be handled by Deputy State Superintendent Ollie Tyler, a former interim superintendent of New Orleans schools, Dastugue said.

In the days when the superintendency was an elected position, the deputy would have filled the remainder of a term cut short for whatever reason. But that rule no longer applies, Dastugue said, now that the position is appointed.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...