Lafayette board eyes new special counsel to investigate Cooper _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Pat Cooper, Lafayette Parish Schools superintendent.

Though the Lafayette Parish School Board hasn’t discussed the last few budget proposals he pitched, Superintendent Pat Cooper will give the board another spending plan Tuesday that would restore about $9 million in cuts the board made to the budget.

Since mid-May, Cooper has submitted more than a dozen budget proposals offering different scenarios to balance the budget, mainly by using sales tax revenues from a tax dedicated for teacher raises and the board’s rainy day account to offset a $23.5 million shortfall.

Tuesday’s meeting marks the board’s 16th attempt to discuss the nearly $270 million general fund, which includes the bulk of the board’s expenses, such as salaries and instructional costs.

The latest budget struggle between Cooper and the majority of the board involves which version of the budget will be advertised to the public. Cooper has refused to accept the board’s changes and has not proceeded to publish dates for the public to review the budget, as well as dates for a public hearing and meeting to adopt the budget — as requested by the board.

Cooper said he’s concerned that some of the board’s cuts would place the district out of compliance with board policies, as well as with state and federal laws.

On Monday, Cooper said that by law he must prepare the budget for the public to review and expects that the board will approve his latest spending plan to prevent the board from missing a state deadline to adopt a budget by Sept. 15.

“They’ll have a chance at the public hearing to bring back some of their ideas,” Cooper said. “They’ll have a chance just like the public will to have input. It doesn’t serve anyone not to pass this and get it out to the public.”

At its Aug. 14 meeting, the board received several pages of about $10 million in expenses it had cut that staff flagged as alleged violations of policies or laws. The board asked its attorney, Bob Hammonds, to review the list for any potential violations. Hammonds said Monday in an email response that he hasn’t had a chance to complete his review of the document but so far has found no violations. He said review of the alleged violations hasn’t been easy because staff did not cite the specific part of the law or regulation they claim is being violated. For example, several alleged violations for the board’s removal of mileage and cellphone reimbursements cite the Federal Labor Standards Act; however, that law deals mostly with overtime claims, Hammonds said.

The board must present an adopted budget to the state superintendent of education by Sept. 30. Ideally, budgets are adopted prior to the end of a fiscal year, which ended for the school district on June 30. That hasn’t always been the case for the board in the past few years as its funding shortfall has grown. This year’s shortfall started at $23.5 million — the largest on record. It hasn’t helped the district that about $11 million will follow Lafayette Parish students who have chosen other public education options — including three new charter schools that opened in Lafayette Parish and online charters. Last year — prior to the opening of the three Lafayette Parish charters — about $2.8 million followed students who attended other public education options.

The board’s handling of its budget process has been challenged by Cajundome director Greg Davis, who filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month asking the court to mandate the board to comply with a state law that requires public bodies to move forward into a new fiscal year with only 50 percent of their budget if they fail to adopt a budget by the end of the fiscal year.

It appears the board is already doing what Davis has asked.

When the board failed to adopt a budget by June 30, school system operations continued in compliance with that state requirement, said Billy Guidry, the district’s chief financial officer.

“It was automatic,” Guidry said of moving into the new fiscal year with 50 percent of last year’s budget. “The intent is to bridge the time that the school year starts to the time that you adopt a budget.”