LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board’s decision Thursday to fire Superintendent Pat Cooper stirred mixed reactions from community leaders.
Some had hoped the conflict between the board and superintendent could have been resolved differently, but others say they hope the school system can now move forward with a fresh start and a renewed focus on what really matters: the education of students.
The board voted 7-2 Thursday to end Cooper’s employment, which is 13 months before his four-year contract was scheduled to end Dec. 31, 2015.
One concern is finding a replacement for Cooper.
Stephen Bartley, chairman of the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council, said the search for a new superintendent could prove difficult given the board’s treatment of Cooper.
The council is an advocacy group comprised of several community and business organizations. It has been a supporter of Cooper, as well as the turnaround plan for district improvement created and implemented in early 2012 after Cooper’s arrival.
“There are a lot of people across the state looking at Lafayette,” Bartley said. “Lafayette is one of the flagship school systems for change. If you have an individual such as Dr. Cooper, who has a stellar reputation and track record over the years, it may be difficult to recruit such a successful individual to come in and be willing to deal with some of the things that have transpired.”
Cooper also had the support of the business community. The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee endorsed the three incumbents who have stood by Cooper in the past two years — Shelton Cobb, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham — in the recent election.
Those candidates did not regain their seats, though three other newcomers who were endorsed by the chamber’s PAC did win their elections.
Jason El Koubi, the chamber’s president, said Friday he had hoped for a different outcome for Cooper and the school system, but said the elections provide a fresh start for the system.
“Like everyone, I’m disappointed that the disagreements between the current School Board and Dr. Cooper could not be resolved in a better way,” El Koubi said.
With the new board coming in, “we have an opportunity for the new board to come together and make consensus-based decisions based on the priorities that we all share,” El Koubi said.
He added, “One of the things that’s clear from this episode is that we need to focus on the things that our community wants, things like establishing a good working dynamic for the board, developing a plan for facilities, and targeting resources for student achievement and preparedness.”
Ann Burruss, a Lafayette parent who is an officer with the education advocacy group Power of Public Education Lafayette, said it time for the community to work together constructively.
“I’m sad that we came to the point where a superintendent was terminated,” Burruss said. “ I’m sad that we came to a point where practically the whole board was replaced, but I’m happy that we’re at a place where things have been decided. The constituency has spoken and we can move forward together.”
Over the past two years, the tensions and tumultuous relations between Cooper and a majority of the board centered on the superintendent’s assertions that changes in state law allowed him to make management decisions board members questioned.
Those same decisions eventually led to his termination Thursday.
Cooper has asserted in recent weeks that the Louisiana School Boards Association played a role in the parish School Board’s instigation of an investigation of him, and its challenges of his authority. He suggested it related to the changes in state law that were intended to place more power in the hands of superintendents.
Scott Richard, president of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said there’s no validity to Cooper’s claim that the LSBA played a role. Richard formerly worked for the Lafayette Parish School System and is a former school board member for St. Landry Parish.
“This is a local issue where the local School Board had to make some tough decisions and follow the processes in place,” Richard said.
He said the changes to state law “never changed a lot of the long-standing roles and responsibilities of school boards and superintendents, especially when it comes to budgetary matters.”
Richard described the struggle in Lafayette as an “anomaly,” adding that most school districts in the state haven’t experienced any major issues of a similar nature .
“I think what was highlighted is that serving on a school board is not an easy task and that it’s a serious, elected position where hard decisions have to be made,” Richard said. “Hopefully, this is a turning point for a more positive direction for the Lafayette Parish School System. The School Boards Association is eager to assist the current board or the new board as they move forward.”
Only two of the nine school board members will rejoin the board in January — Tommy Angelle and Tehmi Chassion. Both voted in support of Cooper’s termination.
Cooper has said he plans to appeal the board’s decision to fire him. His attorney Lane Roy said Cooper will seek to be returned to his position, with back pay.
The board is set to met Monday to discuss potential candidates for interim superintendent and again on Tuesday to make its selection.
Board President Hunter Beasley has said that the current board also will begin discussions Monday about a timeline to fill the job permanently.
The board’s term ends Dec. 31. Law prohibits the board from signing a contract with a new superintendent that extends two years beyond the end of its term.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.