A district judge said Monday that the Lafayette Parish School Board erred when it found that former Superintendent Pat Cooper violated board policy and state law when he used board money to cover his legal expenses in 2013.
The board incorrectly interpreted the law and the grounds for terminating Cooper related to the payment of his $5,100 legal bill to his attorney, Lane Roy, were invalid, Judge Patrick Michot said in court Monday during the first day of Cooper’s challenge of the merits of his termination in November.
“The contract is very clear. ... The board was incorrect in its interpretation of that,” Michot said.
Cooper hired Roy in spring 2013, around the time the board was preparing to reprimand him for hiring Thad Welch as special assistant to the superintendent for maintenance after the board removed the salary for that job. The board approved the formal reprimand in April 2013, and an invoice from Roy’s then-firm, Preis & Roy, was for legal services from April to June 2013.
In July 2013, the board voted to hire special counsel to launch an investigation of Cooper — a necessary step if a school board plans to begin termination proceedings. That investigation didn’t get underway until May 2014 and led to his termination proceedings last fall.
During his termination hearing, the board considered five charges related to his management and personnel decisions. A required supermajority, or six of nine board member votes, were made to uphold four of the five charges.
Following the hearing, the board voted 7-2 to fire Cooper, ending his contract about 13 months early. Cooper quickly filed a lawsuit asking for a judicial review of the board’s decision.
The trial began Monday following a hearing over whether Cooper could call certain witnesses to testify during trial. Michot upheld the School Board’s request to stop state Superintendent of Education John White; state Sen. Elbert Guillory, R-Opelousas; state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge; and former School Board President Shelton Cobb from testifying in the trial. The board’s attorney, Dennis Blunt, also had challenged Cooper being called as a witness, claiming the former superintendent testified during his employment hearing, which was already in the court record. Michot allowed Cooper to testify at trial as long as the testimony was not duplicative and also said Cooper could not testify on matters related to the board’s actions after his termination.
Blunt argued that Cooper’s contract did not allow for the payment of his legal expenses related to situations where his position is adversarial to the board.
“The board doesn’t pay him to sue the board,” Blunt told Michot.
After about an hour of arguments by Blunt and Roy, Michot said the contract says Cooper could hire an attorney for actions and claims made against him.
Cooper testified Monday morning that shortly after he was selected by the School Board in a 5-4 vote as superintendent, he met with then-School Board President Mark Babineaux and then-board Vice President Shelton Cobb about his contract terms. He said he specified that payment of his legal fees should be included in his contract.
“I was very concerned that trivial matters may get in the way,” Cooper said. The exception, he continued, was in the case of termination proceedings.
Blunt questioned Cooper’s role in drafting the contract.
“Someone else drafted it,” Cooper said, adding that a draft of the document was given to him by Babineaux, an attorney.
Blunt asked if Cooper disagreed with or changed any of the provisions in the contract.
“He (Babineaux) tried to low-ball me on the salary,” Cooper said.
Blunt then asked if Cooper agreed with the provisions as presented.
“Except (the) amount of money they were going to pay me,” Cooper said.
Blunt argued that if Cooper “mutually negotiated” the contract with board members, then he played a role in drafting it.
“He was not the drafter, so my ruling is the same,” Michot said.
Michot told Blunt that he could present testimony Tuesday related to the contract drafting issue and that he was open to reconsider his decision related to the legal fee payment.
During Monday’s trial, Blunt questioned whether it was Michot’s intent to conduct a new trial and he later admitted to the judge that he had not anticipated that.
Michot asked him to cite a law that said Cooper had no right to a new trial.
“Your opinion is that it is not a trial de novo. What are (the) standards?” Michot asked Blunt.
“To determine whether the board’s actions (are) supported by substantial evidence,” Blunt told the judge.
On Monday, Michot only decided on the legal fee payment that the board had determined was made in violation of Cooper’s contract.
Michot recessed the court early Monday afternoon and the proceedings will resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.