An attorney for the Lafayette Parish School Board advised members in a training session Saturday to take care to avoid violations of the state’s open meetings and ethics laws.
Attorney Bob Hammonds told board members that such violations could cripple their credibility with the public, something he’s seen happen to boards in other parts of the state.
“There are two things a school board member never wants to see in the newspaper: ‘School board sued for open meetings violation.’ (The) second thing is: ‘Ethics charges brought before school board members,’ ” Hammonds told the board.
He noted that school board members are required to have an hour of ethics training annually and an hour of training related to election finance issues at least once every four years.
The new board met Saturday in a workshop as a continuation of a Jan. 3 orientation to the school system and to review their roles as board members.
Seven new board members joined the nine-member board and were sworn into office at the board’s Jan. 7 meeting. The only board member absent from the workshop was Tehmi Chassion, a returning member from the previous board.
During the five-hour Saturday workshop, Hammonds reviewed state laws related to board members’ duties and powers, including Act 1, a law enacted in 2012 that created changes related to teacher tenure and pay, as well as to the power of school boards.
The 2012 law shifted personnel decisions from school boards to superintendents and became controversial in Lafayette Parish as former superintendent Pat Cooper used the law to defend several personnel decisions. The former school board disagreed with how Cooper was interpreting the statute and eventually voted 7-2 to fire him in November.
Hammonds told the board Saturday that he wanted to review the law to prevent what he described as “he-said, she-said” exchanges down the road.
“There’s a lot of misconception out there about what Act 1 says and doesn’t say,” Hammonds told board members.
Although Act 1 gave authority over personnel decisions to the superintendent, Hammonds said, the board retained other powers, such as control over budget decisions and setting policy and the salary schedule.
During the School Board’s meetings, human resources staff present a list of resignations, retirements and terminations for the board to ratify the personnel changes.
“Board members felt they were neutered by Act 1. That’s not true. ... This act took some of your authority away but didn’t come close to taking authority away as was thought by others out there,” Hammonds said.
Board member Erick Knezek asked Hammonds why the board is asked to ratify the list when Act 1 takes personnel decisions out of members’ hands.
Hammonds explained that he advised staff to present the list to the board because of the judicial challenges the law faced and that are still pending.
“If Act 1 is determined to be unconstitutional, (you) won’t have all these people in never-never land wondering if they were ever legally hired ... or legally fired,” Hammonds said.
Assistant human resources director Suzanne Thibodeaux clarified that the list presented to the board for ratification are only nontenured employees. However, during the meetings, the board also is briefed on personnel changes, including hires, transfers and departures, as a routine report to keep the board informed of staffing changes, said human resources director Bruce Leininger.
Leininger and acting Chief Operations Officer Kyle Bordelon briefed board members on their departments during the training session.
Bordelon said the school system is still playing catch-up for the years of deferred maintenance to its facilities due to an economic slump between the 1980s and mid-1990s.
Leininger talked about how his office makes staffing decisions at schools and briefed members on some issues they’ll be asked to consider in the coming year, such as potential changes to policies related to job transfers and sick leave.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.