LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board decided Wednesday to reschedule Superintendent Pat Cooper’s administrative hearing for Nov. 5 — the day after the School Board election.
During the hearing, Cooper will have a chance to defend himself against five charges that could lead to disciplinary action or his termination.
The hearing had been scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed because of a Thursday court hearing on Cooper’s request that a judge disqualify three board members from voting in his administrative hearing because of their alleged bias against him. Cooper singled out board president Hunter Beasley and members Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion.
On Wednesday, the board voted 5-1 to set the new administrative hearing date, despite questions from board member Shelton Cobb and Cooper himself about whether District Judge Durwood Conque specifically asked the board not to take any action related to the hearing.
“I don’t know whether he said or asked that no action be held,” Cobb said before the board voted.
Beasley said the board’s next steps will depend upon the judge’s decision. Board attorney Danielle Boudreaux said the board could set a future date for Cooper’s hearing and change it, if needed.
“I believe the judge said the hearing may not be set until he ruled,” Cooper said.
“I wasn’t aware of that statement by the judge,” Beasley said.
Cobb voted against rescheduling the administrative hearing. Board members Kermit Bouillion and Babineaux were absent.
Wednesday marked the first meeting without a board member representing District 7, a post formerly held by Mark Cockerham. He vacated the seat last week following notification that he must step down because he had moved out of the district. Beasley told the board he had not yet received notification from the Secretary of State’s office that Cockerham vacated the seat. The official notice is required before the board can start the process of appointing someone to complete his term.
The charges pending against Cooper stem from an investigation by attorneys into complaints about some of Cooper’s management decisions in the past two years. On Wednesday, Cooper again asked the board why his office had yet to receive any invoices from investigative attorney Dennis Blunt.
Cooper told the board that it had not budgeted for the expense, and the legal services will come out of the general fund.
“Is the board OK with just not worrying about that bill?” Cooper asked.
The board’s resolution to hire Blunt doesn’t specify that the attorney must submit invoices each month, just that the board pay monthly invoices.
Cooper told the board he thought the legal services could cost as much as $100,000. When Beasley questioned how he came up with the figure, Cooper said it was an estimate based on Blunt’s rate. The state limits hourly legal fees for special counsel at $175 an hour. According to Blunt’s report, two of his associates assisted with the investigation, which involved interviews with board members and school system employees. Blunt is also an attorney of record for the School Board related to Cooper’s lawsuit, and he also will work on behalf of the board during Cooper’s administrative hearing.
Board member Greg Awbrey said he did the math and Cooper’s $100,000 estimate is a “huge exaggeration.”
“That would mean that an attorney would have to work eight hours a day on one case for 14.5 weeks straight to rack up $100,000,” Awbrey said.
Cooper replied that the latest monthly invoice from the board’s general counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, was for $28,000 and Blunt had multiple attorneys working with him.
“Mr. Awbrey, your calculations are no better than mine,” Cooper said.
Also on Wednesday, the board received an update from South Louisiana Community College Chancellor Natalie Harder on the college’s commitment to help expand Early College Academy, the school system’s high school housed on the college’s Lafayette campus. The board committed $1 million to the college’s new health and sciences building after Harder made a pitch that ECA would have a wing in the new building, enabling the high school to grow to 1,000 students.
Harder told the board Wednesday that because the new building will front the highly trafficked Bertrand Drive, moving the high school students to the new location created transportation issues the college had not previously considered. The new building also will not have an adequate library for students and student spaces are smaller, Harder said. The high school students are now located in the college’s academic building on Devalcourt Drive. Harder told the board the use of the 8-year-old Devalcourt building will better serve the expansion of the high school.
“There are additional benefits of staying in the current facility,” Harder said. “You could start expansion next fall.”
More than 260 students attend the high school, which started in 2008 as a partnership between the school system and the college. The school was recently ranked among the top 500 high schools in the country by Newsweek magazine.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.