LAFAYETTE — A district judge denied a request from Lafayette Parish School Superintendent Pat Cooper to ban three board members from voting in his upcoming administrative hearing and declined to intervene in the board’s budget process.
Cooper wanted the judge to disqualify board members Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion from voting in his upcoming hearing due to their alleged bias against him and to ensure his rights to due process weren’t violated.
In his ruling issued late Wednesday, Judge Durwood Conque wrote that testimony and court filings revealed a “disappointing amount of rancor and acrimony between the board members and the superintendent,” but that the run-ins didn’t “rise to the level of presupposing irreversible bias, irrevocably closed minds and unbending partiality on the part of any of the three board members.”
State law mandates full participation by board members in the hearing process. While state law only requires a simple majority of the entire board membership is necessary to hire a superintendent, it mandates a two-thirds vote to fire one.
Based on the superintendent termination statute, “the court finds that the law clearly contemplates that the entire school board participate in the selection of the superintendent, as well as the termination of the superintendent,” Conque wrote.
He continued, “There seems to be no authority for the court to eliminate members of the board from participation in the employee’s opportunity to present his side of the story. To do so would seem to fly in the face of the wording of the statute.”
Cooper said Wednesday that neither nor his attorneys had received a copy of the ruling, which was filed late Wednesday afternoon in district court. He said he wanted to reserve comment on his next steps until he and his attorneys had a chance to view Conque’s decision.
“I am disappointed about it,” Cooper said. “I thought we made our case pretty clear, but we’ll accept his ruling and we’ll have to move forward from here.”
Last week, Conque considered two days of witness testimony and attorneys’ arguments related to the board’s budget adoption process and on board members’ ability to remain impartial when making decisions in Cooper’s upcoming hearing.
Attorneys for the School Board argued that Cooper’s request to bar the board members from acting in his hearing was premature. Cooper has the right to judicial review of the board’s decision after that decision is made — not before, board attorneys had argued.
Attorney Lane Roy, who represents Cooper, questioned the superintendent about his encounters with board member during oral arguments before Conque. The judge frequently reminded Roy that the path to prove bias was extremely narrow and examples of disagreements and differing policies or views didn’t rise to the level of bias.
Conque also continually reminded attorneys that the content or merits of the budget weren’t his concern.
Cooper had also asked the court to deem the board’s budget adoption process illegal and force it to continue operations at 50 percent of the 2013-14 budget until a new board takes office in January.
Conque denied Cooper’s request related to the budget and wrote that “the board’s position is supported by both the law and the evidence.”
Cooper claimed the budget adopted by the board was a separate spending plan proposed by the board that was not properly advertised and vetted in a public hearing — as his proposed budget was. Conque wrote that the state budget act only requires that the budget be adopted in an open meeting, must be balanced and contain certain information required by law.
“That this procedure was followed by the board is not contradicted,” Conque wrote. “There are not two budgets, there is only a ‘proposed’ budget and there is an ‘adopted’ budget. The final budget is the one adopted.”
Conque further noted that Cooper’s claims on the budget weren’t appropriate for the issuance of a preliminary injunction and that “Cooper has failed to show that he is likely to succeed on the merits of this issue.”
All three board members testified that they would enter the hearing with an open mind and consider the facts presented when making decisions in Cooper’s hearing.
Beasley, speaking in an interview after the judge issued his decision, said the administrative hearing for Cooper will proceed as scheduled on Nov. 5.
“Concerning the alleged bias, I know I can definitely speak for myself that I have no bias against Dr. Cooper and the other board members didn’t,” Beasley said.
On the issue of the budget, Beasley said the board “followed all the procedures and did what we were supposed to do.”
It would take six votes from the nine-member board to approve any recommendation for Cooper’s termination during the hearing. In his court filings, Cooper continually referenced actions of the board’s six-member majority on budget and other decisions impacting the district. Cooper’s lawsuit attempted to exclude half of that six-member majority. The other three board members in the majority are Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey and Rae Trahan.
The six board members voted in support of an investigation of Cooper that launched in May and to accept the five pending charges against Cooper.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.