Activist questions superintendent selection process

Felecia Gomez-Walker, the newly selected superintendent for St. Charles Parish Public Schools, officially took over administration of the school system as of 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, July 18.

Gomez-Walker will receive $165,000 per year plus a $5,000 tax sheltered annuity and a $10,000 car allowance.

However, a local community activist is questioning why the St. Charles Parish School Board only looked at regional candidates instead of candidates from the country’s top education states.

The process that eventually resulted in Gomez-Walker’s selection was a relatively short one that began after Dr. Rodney Lafon announced on April 24 that he would retire. On July 2, Gomez-Walker, who served as an administrator for the St. Charles school system for 17 years, was unanimously selected at the July 2 School Board meeting.

The effort to replace Lafon began immediately after his retirement announcement and was led by District 5 School Board member John Smith, who serves a consultant for a firm providing executive recruitment and development support in addition to being the head of the Louisiana School Board Association. However, Smith acted without the assistance of his consulting firm in the search.

The School Board’s employment posting for the position only returned 14 applications that were reviewed by board members and a 19-person community advisory committee made up of local industry and business leaders, clergy members, educators, students and parents.

The number of applicants for the position is likely tied to the School Board’s decision to limit the superintendent search to regional candidates rather than opening it up to the entire country.

In late June, the selection process for the next superintendent was well underway with three finalists announced. By all respects the candidates returned by Smith’s selection process were longtime educators and administrators with ample experience and advanced degrees. Two of the three finalists, Joey Comeaux and Gomez-Walker, were from Louisiana. Rick Williams, from Texas, was the only candidate with prior superintendent experience.

Louisiana has long been at the bottom of the nation’s rankings for student achievement. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state ranked 49th in student achievement last year while Texas ranked 11th.

Community advisory committee member and activist Kamau Odinga questioned the School Board’s reasoning behind limiting the search to only regional candidates, especially given Louisiana’s low student achievement.

“I want our school district to not only be competitive regionally, but nationally and internationally,” he said. “When I look at these three candidates I didn’t get a sense that any of them had that extra factor to take us to the next level.”

Odinga also wonders why candidates were not required to have doctorates in education.

Williams was the only candidate with a doctorate while Comeaux had a Master’s + 30 and Gomez-Walker had the least amount of education with only a Master’s degree.

“Running a school district is basically the same as being a CEO. If you look around at CEOs you expect them to be experts in their fields. Why didn’t they require all of the candidates to have doctorates?” he said.

Despite Odinga’s criticisms, Smith said he thought the search went well.

“The School Board members made a decision on how it was going to conduct the search and I am sure that everybody in the world has an opinion on what the School Board should have done. I believe what the School Board did was proper,” he said.

Although Smith defended the School Board’s selection process, he said that he would not respond directly to Odinga’s comments.

“I do not wish to rebut Kamau Odinga in the newspaper or any other place,” he said. “What I would suggest is that Kamau Odinga may choose to run for School Board. School Board elections will be held next year and he may choose to do that.”


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