LAFAYETTE — Superintendent Pat Cooper changed his mind about refusing to turn in the budget the School Board adopted Monday to the Louisiana Department of Education — but said Tuesday that he won’t follow the spending plan until state officials verify it doesn’t violate state law.
The board adopted a 2014-15 unified budget of $430 million at a special meeting Monday. At the time, Cooper warned the board it was violating a new state law, Act 1, by eliminating some positions and cutting money for other instructional needs.
The board’s budget-cutting exercise reduced general fund spending by about $6 million. However, Cooper had told the board he would not submit the budget it approved to the Louisiana Department of Education by Sept. 30 — a state requirement.
On Tuesday, Cooper reversed course, saying he would follow through with the required submission but adding that he’d alert state education officials that he had “deep concerns about its legality.”
“I want the Department of Education to examine (it) and see what they think, but until we get an answer from them about that, we’ll continue to use last year’s budget, so this should have no disruption of operations for the schools,” Cooper said.
That means that the cuts the board adopted Monday won’t take effect until Cooper hears back from state officials.
Cooper claims the majority of the $6 million in cuts the board approved violate Act 1, a state law Cooper says gives the board budgetary authority to set the number of employees, schools and total dollar amount — not make personnel decisions, like eliminating line item funding to essentially fire employees.
Some of the cuts involved the elimination of several positions, including in-school suspension facilitators at schools across the district; the district’s community collaborations and partnerships director and office secretary positions; and at least four positions in the early childhood education department, including an assistant director.
Board president Hunter Beasley — and a majority of the board — disagrees with Cooper’s claims that the board has overstepped its authority and supported the adoption of the budget with the board’s recommended cuts on Monday.
Beasley said he wouldn’t fight Cooper’s decision to use the 2013-14 budget until state officials review the budget, but disagreed with that decision as well.
Act 1, enacted in July 2012, changed several aspects of education law, including how teachers are evaluated and paid. It also transferred some powers from school boards to superintendents.
How to interpret the transfer of power from boards to superintendents has been a central point of contention in the battle between Cooper and a majority of the School Board’s nine members. The conflicts have culminated with a majority of the board proceeding with scheduling a hearing for Cooper to defend himself against charges that he violated School Board policies, state laws and his own contract related to personnel and budgetary decisions in the past two years.
State law requires that school boards adopt a budget by Sept. 15 and that it be submitted to the Louisiana Department of Education by Sept. 30.
“The Department reviews all budget submissions for financial soundness and legal compliance. We will do the same with the budget submitted by the Lafayette Parish Public School System,” said Barry Landry, department spokesman.
Beasley said Tuesday that while he’s pleased that Cooper will submit the adopted budget to the state, he’s disappointed the superintendent thinks it’s necessary for the state to review the legality of the board’s decisions.
He noted that board attorneys reviewed a list of cuts Cooper claimed would violate state or federal law or board policies, and attempted to meet with staff to receive more information about some of the expenses.
“If he had concerns about legality, this could have been handled before now,” Beasley said. “A couple of opportunities were given to staff to meet with attorneys to go over specific allegations. For staff to ignore requests to meet and discuss these laws, that’s inexcusable.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.