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Education board plan to hire lawyer in Common Core dispute with governor met with resistance

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration said Thursday it won't sign off on the state school board's plan to hire outside attorneys if the legal contract would be used to pursue a lawsuit against the governor.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering whether to sue Jindal for his efforts to undermine use of the Common Core education standards in Louisiana's public schools.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, whose office reviews state agency contracts, said Louisiana's ethics code prohibits an attorney from taking an adverse action against his own client. Nichols said that means a state agency can't hire a lawyer to sue the state.

BESE President Chas Roemer said the board will continue with its plans.

"If they want to deny our right to counsel, we'll be glad to go to court on that issue alone. That's not right. They act like bullies. They've got a long track record of doing so. And we won't be bullied," Roemer said.

The education board voted this month to hire a law firm that has agreed to represent it for free. But in a complication, state law has a provision requiring boards that hire outside lawyers to get approval from the attorney general and the governor.

The attorney general's office approved the contract. It was submitted to Jindal's Division of Administration this week, though Roemer and Education Superintendent John White question whether such approval was needed.

Nichols sent a letter Thursday to White and Roemer, requesting more information and saying she wanted to talk with them about "the intent of contract."

"As a general minimum guideline, counsel must affirm it is not representing any party in an action adverse to the State," she wrote.

The Common Core standards, grade-by-grade benchmarks of what students should learn in English and math, have been adopted by more than 40 states.

Jindal, a one-time Common Core supporter, now opposes the standards as a federal intrusion into local education. But a majority of BESE members and White still support the standards.

In June, Jindal suspended testing contracts that White's department planned to use to buy testing material aligned with Common Core.

The governor said the department didn't follow state procurement law in the testing contract. White and Roemer disagreed and said Jindal overstepped his legal authority.

The dispute has stalled standardized testing plans, with school opening in less than three weeks.

In an interview, Nichols said if the education board wants to hire lawyers to clarify issues with contracting law, the Jindal administration would approve the contract. But she said if the intent is to go further and sue the governor, her office won't approve it.

"We don't think her opinion makes any difference in our plans," Roemer said. "You can sue the king but only if the king approves? I don't think so."

Parents and teachers who support Common Core sued Jindal this week, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy in violation of the Louisiana Constitution.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 4. White told school superintendents Thursday that he will have a standardized testing plan for schools within two weeks of whatever decision is handed down at the hearing.

Also pending is a separate lawsuit filed this week by 17 state lawmakers who oppose Common Core and who claim BESE and the education department didn't properly enact the standards.

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