Pat Cooper’s bid to bar termination vote heads to Lafayette judge _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper.

A district judge could consider Superintendent Pat Cooper’s request to bar three School Board members from voting in any termination proceedings against him on Tuesday morning — hours before Cooper’s employment hearing with the board, said Lane Roy, Cooper’s attorney.

Cooper filed suit in district court Monday asking a judge to disqualify board members Mark Babineaux, Tehmi Chassion and Hunter Beasley from voting during his employment hearing due to their alleged bias against him.

The lawsuit, which also asks the court to intervene in the board’s budget process, seeks an injunction to stop the Tuesday employment hearing pending a decision on the board members’ alleged biases.

District Judge Durwood Conque has been assigned the case. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday. However, School Board President Hunter Beasley confirmed that Tuesday morning was discussed as a potential hearing date.

The board is set to consider five formal charges against Cooper, which could lead to disciplinary action — including termination — during a hearing that is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at the School Board’s office.

If Cooper’s employment hearing proceeds, “it is believed that there is an excellent chance that Dr. Cooper will be terminated by the Board,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit states the current board would not be able to appoint an interim or permanent replacement as superintendent past the end of their own term — which is Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, Cooper’s lawsuit alleges there is no budget in place for the school system because of board actions.

The board adopted a 2014-15 budget on Sept. 15, but recent information from the Louisiana Department of Education suggests the spending plan wasn’t legally adopted because the board made substantial changes to Cooper’s proposed budget — something that requires restarting the public review and hearing process.

“Without a superintendent, without a budget appropriately and legally drawn, the education of the Lafayette Parish students will be unalterably damaged,” the lawsuit stated.

Cooper’s claims mirror those in a lawsuit filed in federal court in August by Cajundome director Greg Davis. Davis’ lawsuit accused Babineaux and Chassion of bias against the superintendent, while Cooper also accuses Beasley.

Davis’ lawsuit was dismissed with the federal judge finding his claims lacked standing in federal court and that Davis wasn’t the appropriate plaintiff to make them.

The board hired an attorney to investigate complaints against Cooper and that investigation led to the board accepting five charges against Cooper. Four of the charges are related to his budgetary and management decisions, while a fifth is related to the score on his job evaluation.

In his lawsuit, Cooper alleges Beasley is biased against him because he received a draft copy of the investigative attorney’s report and refused to release it to other board members and the public. The lawsuit does not note that Beasley released the draft report last week, following the board’s unanimous vote for him to do so.

In the lawsuit, Cooper also alleges that Beasley was “incensed and embarrassed” when the superintendent corrected him on whether “gifted and talented” was part of the special education classification and said that Beasley was against Cooper’s recommendation for a special education director.

Beasley, who teaches special education courses at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said Wednesday that could not recall details of the incidents referred to in the lawsuit but said he’s aware of the classifications for special education.

Beasley said he recalled suggesting that the new special education director “should have experience working with children with disabilities.”

The three board members named in the lawsuit are part of a majority of six of the nine-member board who voted in support of the charges against Cooper.

Two of the charges against Cooper relate to his hiring in 2012 and continued payment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent over transportation, grounds, facilities and maintenance, who lacked the required education for the job.

The lawsuit details ongoing disputes between Chassion and Cooper, including Chassion’s insinuations in April 2013 that his flat tires were due to his questioning of Welch’s hiring. It also recounts Chassion’s call to police in February to report that Cooper yelled at him and grabbed him during a closed door meeting with other board members. No charges were filed.

The lawsuit also cites low performance scores Chassion and Babineaux gave Cooper on his job evaluation in June. Chassion gave Cooper 23 zeroes in 28 categories, while Babineaux gave the superintendent 13 zeroes.

The lawsuit recounts tiffs between Babineaux and Cooper, starting with an allegation that Babineaux, as then-board president, attempted to disqualify Cooper as a candidate for superintendent in 2011. The lawsuit also criticizes Babineaux for votes against the turnaround plan that Cooper pushed in his first months as superintendent.

“Babineaux has frequently commented in board meetings that Dr. Cooper is dismantling all that was working for the School System before Dr. Cooper arrived and implemented the Turnaround Plan,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit further alleges Babineaux is biased against Cooper because the superintendent “exposed Babineaux for signing a construction management contract addendum without board authorization.”

The contract addendum committed the school system to a 3.3 percent revenue share of any school system tax passed by parish voters within 30 months of the contract signing with a construction management firm, CSRS Inc. The firm wasn’t identified in the lawsuit, nor was information that the firm committed to renegotiating that contract upon Cooper’s request.

Beasley said Wednesday that other board members could be accused of bias.

“It seems that there are a couple of board members who seem biased. I’d say three — but one is gone now,” Beasley said, referring to District 7 board member Mark Cockerham’s decision to resign this week because of issues related to his residency.

Cockerham’s resignation came after an assistant district attorney issued an opinion Monday that he should do so or face a lawsuit filed by the DA’s Office because he had moved out of the current District 7 boundary lines.

Cockerham had joined with two other board members —Shelton Cobb and Kermit Bouillion — in voting against bringing any charges against Cooper.

“Mr. Cobb and Mr. Bouillion seem adamant about keeping the superintendent,” Beasley said. “If they support the superintendent, that’s fine. They’re supposed to be going into this hearing with an open mind. I know that I do. Evidently, Dr. Cooper doesn’t feel that I have an open mind. I’d raise a question: Do Mr. Cobb and Mr. Bouillion have an open mind?”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.