LAFAYETTE — Call it a rain delay: The Lafayette Parish School Board planned to consider formal charges against Superintendent Pat Cooper at its meeting Wednesday. However, the Baton Rouge attorney scheduled to present the charges was unable to attend the meeting.
Board president Hunter Beasley told the board that he assumed attorney Dennis Blunt may have been unable to make it to Lafayette due to bad weather. After the meeting, Beasley said he had spoken to Blunt earlier Wednesday and the attorney did not indicate he wouldn’t be in attendance.
The charges stem from an investigation by Blunt, the board’s special counsel, that allege Cooper violated board policy, state laws and his own contract in making some personnel, budgetary and contract decisions.
Following the meeting, Cooper said he plans to hold the discussion on the formal charges in public. Personnel issues may be discussed in executive session, though Cooper has the right to ask that the discussion be held in public. Cooper says he wants the discussion to be out in the open for the benefit of other superintendents.
“I look at this as a landmark case for education,” Cooper said.“I see this as a disagreement about Act 1. I want it all to be open and documented.”
During Wednesday’s meeting, board member Rae Trahan pressed the board to seek the Legislative Auditor’s intervention. The board didn’t make a decision on her request, though chief financial officer Billy Guidry reminded board members that their own external auditor will conduct his annual financial review later this month and could address their issues.
In March, the external auditor delivered a fiscal report on the board’s prior fiscal year for 2012-13 and flagged an issue related to some principals being paid salaries outside the board’s pay schedule. The auditor advised the board to seek a legal opinion on the practice. It’s unclear whether the board clarified the issue; however, Blunt investigated the principal pay issue and it was included in the report he made to the board last week.
Blunt delivered the findings of his investigation to the School Board during a special meeting on Aug. 28. He described Cooper’s conduct as unprofessional and advised the board that if the superintendent is unwilling to resign, then it should consider whether to fire him. The board asked Blunt to write up formal charges for them to consider.
The charges may center on the employment and payment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent hired in March 2012.
Blunt highlighted 10 issues in his report to the board, among them the principal pay issue and Welch’s hiring prior to Act 1, a state law that took effect in July 2012 that transfers personnel decision authority from school boards to superintendents.
When some School Board members discovered that Welch did not have the educational requirements for the job, they voted in February 2013 to reconsider their March 2012 hiring decision — though Cooper refused to terminate Welch. In April 2013, the board removed line item funding for Welch’s position from the budget. He continues to be employed by the school district.
The board reprimanded Cooper in July 2013 for the Welch issue.
Earlier on Wednesday, attorney Gary McGoffin said the parties in a federal lawsuit seeking to block board members Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion from voting on any termination proceedings against Cooper have agreed the two can vote on accepting charges against the superintendent.
McGoffin is the attorney for Cajundome director Greg Davis, who filed a federal lawsuit last month asking the court to disqualify Babineaux and Chassion from participating in any potential termination proceedings against Cooper, alleging the two board members are biased against the superintendent.
McGoffin said the parties decided in a Wednesday morning phone conference with U.S. District Judge Richard Haik’s law clerk that a temporary restraining order wasn’t necessary at this point because the board had been expected to vote Wednesday only on whether to accept charges against Cooper — not on his termination.
Board attorney Bob Hammonds filed a motion Tuesday for dismissal of the suit. McGoffin said he told Haik’s clerk that he’d file his response to the motion to dismiss by next Friday.