Lafayette SB budget battle quiet as it heads to public hearing _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Former Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper pictured here at an August 2014 school board meeting.

A state district judge Monday denied ousted Lafayette Parish schools Superintendent Pat Cooper’s request for a new trial to reconsider his November 2014 termination.

State District Judge Patrick Michot said at Monday’s hearing he stands by the decision he made in September when he ruled the board was within its rights to fire Cooper after the former superintendent set the salaries of five principals outside the board-adopted salary schedule.

Michot said setting the salaries outside the board’s approved salary schedule was a violation of both board policy and state law.

Cooper requested a new trial, asking Michot to reconsider the merits of his termination challenge.

Michot said Monday a new trial is not an opportunity “to get another bite of the apple” or to make new arguments with the benefit of hindsight.

In the 2013-14 school year, five principals were hired and paid for working 244 days, which was a higher salary than what was being paid to other principals, who were being paid for working 224 days or fewer days based on their school assignment. Cooper has defended the salary decision as a way to attract principals to low-performing schools.

Michot stood by his initial ruling that state law gives the authority to the School Board to set the salary schedule and that in this case, the schedule wasn’t followed.

Following the hearing, Cooper said he plans to appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal.

“We used the salary schedule,” Cooper said in defense of his decision. “How many people are hired late and we prorate their pay based on the days they work? I had these people working more days and prorated them based on 244 days. They didn’t work less than that.”

During Monday’s hearing, board attorney Dennis Blunt displayed several large exhibit cards on an easel that illustrated some of the testimony from Bruce Leininger, human resources director, and Billy Guidry, chief financial officer. Another card displayed board policy and state law relevant to the case.

Lane Roy, Cooper’s attorney, told the judge that Cooper and Leininger were in agreement about principals’ pay needing to be higher to attract candidates to the job.

Blunt argued that Leininger didn’t testify during Cooper’s employment hearing with the School Board in November 2014 that it was his suggestion to alter the principals’ pay.

“(Cooper) made up his own salary schedule,” Blunt told the judge, and later added that the superintendent had to cross out one number and pay the principals another to calculate their salaries, which was not in line with the set schedule approved by the board.

Cooper shook his head and spoke to Roy during Blunt’s argument before the judge.

Roy told Michot that if Cooper did as Blunt suggested — and paid principals more than the schedule — Cooper would be guilty of a criminal act because paying employees money for time they didn’t work would be equivalent to donating public funds, which is against the law. Criminal claims were never made and no directives from the Attorney General’s Office of any violations of the law were ever received after the principal pay issue was questioned by the board, Roy said.

“(Leininger) doesn’t say (Cooper) decided, he says, ‘we’ decided. He quoted Leininger up there,” Roy said, referencing the oversized card holding parts of Leininger’s testimony.

“(Leinginger) said, ‘We decided this was the way to get principals.’ When asked if (he) thought what he was doing was valid and legitimate, Leininger said, ‘Yes.’ There was no deviation. The schedule was followed,” Roy told the judge.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.