LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board has until Nov. 6 to fill former Lafayette Parish School Board member Mark Cockerham’s District 7 seat on the board, according to a notice from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office mailed to School Board offices Monday.
The Secretary of State’s Office mailed notification of Cockerham’s resignation, effective Oct. 16, to Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper in a letter dated Monday, according to a copy of the letter requested by The Advocate. Cockerham’s term ends Dec. 31.
Cockerham stepped down from the board earlier this month after an assistant district attorney advised him that he should vacate the seat because he moved out of District 7. Based on redistricting maps, Cockerham lives in District 7 and is qualified for the Nov. 4 election; however, based on maps still in effect until the end of the year, Cockerham lives in District 9. Cockerham publicly announced that he was stepping down on Oct. 7 but didn’t file official notice with the Secretary of State’s Office until Oct. 16.
Last month, a former Lafayette Parish schools administrator, Nancy Cech, and Cockerham’s challenger in the Nov. 4 District 7 race, Dawn Morris, filed a lawsuit in district court challenging Cockerham’s residency status for his current term. Both offered to drop their lawsuit, however, Cockerham refused and has requested that the court consider sanctions against the two women for filing the lawsuit. Cockerham alleges the women filed the lawsuit without cause because law provides that they make a complaint about residency status with the District Attorney’s Office.
Cockerham’s claim — as well as the women’s request for dismissal — was scheduled for a hearing Monday, though the proceeding was rescheduled for Oct. 29.
A replacement for Cockerham could come as soon as next Monday, pending the scheduling of a special board meeting, board President Hunter Beasley said on Monday.
He encouraged those residents in District 7 who are interested in serving out the remainder of Cockerham’s term to contact him and submit a résumé and background information about why they’re interested in the position. Beasley said he was unaware of any requirement of the board to formally advertise the vacancy.
“How it works is there will be a nomination by a board member and we would vote on that individual,” Beasley said.
Cockerham’s vacancy shakes up the small corps of support that remains for Cooper’s initiatives and the superintendent himself, as the School Board pursues five charges against the superintendent that could lead to disciplinary action or even his termination.
Whoever is appointed will likely sit in on major decisions that face the board during Cooper’s Nov. 5 administrative hearing where he’ll defend himself against the five charges.
How many board members will vote in the hearing is still in limbo as a district judge is expected to rule Wednesday whether Cooper’s bias claims against three board members have merit and whether they should be disqualified from voting. On Thursday and Friday, state District Judge Durwood Conque considered testimony and arguments by attorneys about whether the board members — Beasley, Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion — could make impartial decisions.
Firing a public schools superintendent takes a super-majority vote of a school board, according to state law. In Lafayette, that’s six votes from the nine-member board. The charges stem from an investigation by an attorney the board hired in May. The investigative attorney and the board’s own general counsel advised against requests by Cockerham and board members Shelton Cobb and Kermit Bouillion to receive a copy of the final draft of the investigative report.
The attorneys cited concern that the report could prejudice board members who should solely consider evidence presented during Cooper’s administrative hearing. The board’s attorney also advised that it would take a board vote to release the document. A copy of the preliminary report prepared prior to attorneys’ interviews with Cooper and other staff members was released to Beasley in August.
Rather than vote to release the final draft, the board voted to give Beasley permission to release the preliminary report on Oct. 1. Both versions of the report were filed into the court record last week as exhibits related to Cooper’s lawsuit against the three board members. The final draft of the report only contains more detailed information about the complaints investigated against Cooper with no obvious deviations from a presentation Blunt gave the board of his findings in late August.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.