LAFAYETTE — Five candidates for three Lafayette Parish School Board seats weighed in Thursday on the ongoing strife between the board and Superintendent Pat Cooper.
The candidates, who are vying for seats in board districts 7, 8 and 9, also talked about the district’s need for increased tax revenue.
The forum was sponsored by the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council, a coalition of education groups. The event Thursday was the third for School Board candidates, with forums for districts 1 through 6 taking place Tuesday and Wednesday.
The election is Nov. 4.
Dawn Morris, an attorney running for the District 7 seat, said a school superintendent must inspire the board’s legislative body and also collaborate with them to reach goals.
“My assessment is that Dr. Cooper is a visionary. However, I believe he’s very divisive and polarizing,” Morris said.
Mark Cockerham, the incumbent for District 7, said Cooper’s been hampered by a micromanaging majority of the board.
“He has been handcuffed,” said Cockerham, who is one of three board members who regularly back Cooper. Toward the end of the forum, he apologized to the public for the actions and behavior of the majority of the board.
Cockerham was the only incumbent at the Thursday forum. District 8 incumbent and board President Hunter Beasley, who with five other board members opposes Cooper, skipped the forum. He cited a work obligation.
District 9 incumbent Rae Trahan is not seeking re-election.
Cooper has been at odds with the board for almost the entirety of his two years on the job, mostly over personnel decisions he’s made. The body recently voted to use an outside attorney’s investigative findings to decide whether to fire or discipline Cooper at a hearing next month.
District 8 candidate Erick Knezek, a businessman, said it’s the board’s responsibility to set policy, hire the superintendent and let the superintendent carry out that policy.
“Is (Cooper) a little rough around the edges? Yes. … But most effective leaders have been rough around the edges … but they’re superior performers,” Knezek said.
Brian West, District 9 candidate, said he’d work with Cooper if elected.
“No one is wrong 100 percent of the time, and no one, except my wife, is right 100 percent of the time,” West said, noting school system improvements in the past two years.
“We may not be where we want to be now, but we’re not where we were,” he said, alluding to improvements Lafayette students have made during Cooper’s time on the job.
District 9 candidate Jeremy Hidalgo also said Cooper has not been allowed to do his job. He said it’s board members’ tasks to hire a superintendent and set policies and goals.
Hidalgo said the board has lost the trust of voters over the Cooper entanglements and that the current board is in no position to ask Lafayette Parish for more tax revenue.
“I think we all agree we need more revenue,” Hidalgo said, pointing to aging school facilities.
He said District 9, which sits in the booming south part of Lafayette Parish, is in critical need of new buildings. But, Hidalgo said, those voters will never agree to tax themselves to give money to the current board.
All the candidates agreed the district needs new facilities.
Cockerham, the District 7 incumbent, said he is working with Cooper, Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais and incoming Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter to devise a plan for new schools in south Lafayette Parish, which is where a growing population has put the biggest strain on public schools.
Knezek said two recent charter school openings in north and south Lafayette Parish have provided students and their parents with choices they did not have before.
“They are providing a quality education,” Knezek said.
Morris said the privately run charter schools are taking money from public schools. She said the district lost $9.8 million in the last year because public money has followed students who have opted to attend charter schools.