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Mayor Bloomberg trust donated big to Louisiana education board elections

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/Teacher-student_Thumb1.jpgA fund called The Michael R. Bloomberg Revocable Trust, of which the principal trustee is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, donated $100,000 to a Baton Rouge-based political action committee just days before a pivotal Louisiana election that decided the make-up of the state’s main K-12 board of education.

The PAC in question, Alliance for Better Classrooms, spent at least $300,000 in contributions on behalf of generally pro-charter, anti-teacher-tenure and anti-union candidates running for positions on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).

The elections were this past Saturday, and though a couple of races are still inconclusive, state campaign finance reports show the business lobby, buttressed by Bloomberg dollars, far outspent groups aligned with teacher union positions.

Voters also re-elected Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) to a second term, whose likely selection for the state superintendent of education is John White, current superintendent of New Orleans-dominated Recovery School District and former deputy school chief of New York City’s public school system. RSD has overseen the aggressive closure of schools in New Orleans which has led to the city leading the nation in the percentage of charter schools that make up its school buildings — around 70 percent.

Mayor Bloomberg has been a staunch supporter of charter schools, and White helped the mayor roll out his reform-styled education plans in New York.

Interestingly, the largest Bloomberg Trust donation occurred four days before the election; other smaller $5,000 donations from the Trust came through even closer to the day voters headed out to the polls.

BESE officials work part-time and are unpaid, but implement the laws the state Legislature passes and preside over the Louisiana Department of Education. In recent years, BESE has become a battle ground for business-backed reform candidates, moderates, and progressives who seek to curb or protect teacher tenure laws and the presence of charter schools.

Implications and the money

The implications of this election are at first glance not deserving of the big money coming from the likes of an organization bearing the billionaire mayor of New York City’s name. But the 11-member BESE determines whether the politically conservative education reforms taking place in Louisiana will continue at an even greater pace, and whether big-business groups sympathetic to the now re-elected Gov. Jindal can have even greater sway in the state’s education system.

Alliance for Better Classrooms is backed by Lane Grigsby, founder and Board chairman of Cajun Contractors, Inc., a successful construction firm that in the last two years alone was awarded $300 million in civil projects from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A Times Picayune article indicates Cajun Contractors earns $400 million a year.

Also behind the PAC is Mike Wampold, a construction developer whose company builds luxury residential and large commercial properties.

Grigsby has gone on record complaining about teacher tenure in the Pelican State, saying not enough teachers have been let go. In the same Times Picayune article, the semi-retired businessman stressed performance is improved through competition, something of a rallying cry for education reformers who seek to buffer public education with a free-market sheen.

In total, Alliance for Better Classrooms donated $300,000 to what they call “pro-reform” candidates. The PAC received large donations from a few individuals and companies: $90,000 from Cajun Industries; $100,000 each from Grigsby’s wife Barbara Grigsby and the Bloomberg Trust; $25,000 from ISC Constructors; and four $20,000 donations from private citizens, including lawyer Michael C. Moran and Todd W. Grigsby, the elder Grigsby’s son.

**Reform-style candidate, backed by business lobby, under scrutiny for loose ethics **

Chas Roemer, son of former governor Buddy Roemer, is a BESE member squarely in the reform camp who benefited from the business community’s financial largesse.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), a self-proclaimed promoter of the “free-enterprise system” that benefits the business community, set up four regional PACs (West PAC, East PAC, North PAC, and South PAC) that each gave Roemer, an incumbent, $10,000. The state Republican Party gave nearly $34,000. Gov. Jindal, who needs a two-thirds majority in BESE so that his choice for state superintendent of public schools is appointed, gave Roemer $5,000 through his campaign committee.

Roemer’s membership on BESE has been a source of rancor for groups opposing his unabated support for charter schools. Roemer’s sister, Caroline Roemer Shirley, is executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS). The group advocates for expanding charter schools in the state and loosening restrictions on teacher tenure. In 2008, the state’s top ethics committee ruled Caroline Roemer cannot appear before BESE, but LAPCS is not restricted. Chas Roemer was not asked to recuse himself from hearings when LAPCS is present, though sections 1112 and 1120 of the Louisiana Code of Governmental Ethics indicate that he should.

A look at BESE meeting minutes in January of 2011 reveals (PDF) Chas Roemer voted on renewing the charters of multiple charter schools (Type 5 Charter Schools) that are members of the charter school association his sister leads. Some of those include the McDonogh schools, which belong to the KIPP and Algiers charter school networks.

Why Gov. Jindal cares about BESE

Jindal can appoint three BESE representatives; though the reform camp has a one-member majority, an additional member sympathetic to the pro-charter reform movement would put the coalition over the top. The governor’s likely selection for the top education position, White of the Recovery School District (RSD), is also an alumnus of Teach for America (TFA).

One BESE election that had the attention of many was between incumbent Louella Givens and the head of TFA in New Orleans, Kira Orange Jones. Neither candidate won a majority of the votes, and a run-off is set for mid November.

Jones is viewed as a potential member of the Jindal coalition on BESE.

Givens, known as a supporter of teachers unions and a constant critic of RSD and charter schools, took in $11,000 from the state affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. Another $2,000 came in from the Louisiana School Board Association (LSBA), an organization very critical of the state’s education policy moves.

Jones, meanwhile, received $40,000 from the four PACs created by LABI and $5,000 amounts from dozens of contributors, including the Bloomberg group, and donors from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

American Federation for Children, a non-profit that is regarded as the leading group in advocating for school voucher programs, donated heavily in the Saturday elections. It raised $100,000 from ISC Construction, $25,000 from Cajun Industries and $1,000 from a group called Friends of Bobby Jindal.

Charter schools are semi-autonomous education institutions with private school boards. In New Orleans, they operate as miniature school districts and remain popular among lawmakers despite incidents of poor student treatment, aggressive punishment tactics, lackluster academic gains and testing improprieties. National studies suggest the success of charter schools is limited, and more charter schools underperform compared to traditional neighborhood schools than those that compare more favorably.

However, parents have higher marks for charter schools, including in New Orleans, and prefer the experimental schools to traditional neighborhood programs.

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