Pat Cooper’s bid to bar termination vote heads to Lafayette judge _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper.

Disagreements, voting records and heated discussions between Superintendent Pat Cooper and three Lafayette School Board members don’t prove the board members are biased against Cooper and should be disqualified from voting in a future termination hearing against him, a judge told attorneys Thursday.

However, 15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque did not issue a ruling at the hearing. The hearing reconvenes at 10 a.m. Friday.

At the hearing, Conque considered Cooper’s request that he disqualify three board members from voting in his administrative hearing due to their alleged bias against him.

The petition singled out board President Hunter Beasley and board members Tehmi Chassion and Mark Babineaux, accusing them of bias, and it also asked the court to intervene in the board’s budget process.

It’s normal for board members and superintendents to disagree, Conque told Cooper’s attorney, Lane Roy.

“If they both get along all the time, they’re not necessary. It’s a checks and balances kind of thing,” Conque said. “(I’m) looking for evidence of a closed mind, a prejudgment where a board member could not sit on a tribunal in fairness,” Conque said.

Conque considered more than four hours of testimony from Cooper and five other witnesses at Thursday’s hearing.

On the matter of the budget, Conque questioned why the court was asked to intervene in the matter when the school system had received no official documentation from the state superintendent of education related to Cooper’s request for a legal review of the budget.

Discussion on the budget took about two hours Thursday, while the court spent about five hours on Cooper’s bias claims.

Last month, the board voted 6-3 to accept five charges against Cooper, who will have a chance to defend himself against the claims during an administrative hearing tentatively scheduled for Nov. 5.

Four of the charges are related to personnel and budgetary decisions, and accuse Cooper of “unworthiness, inefficiency, breach of contract and failure to comply with board policy and state law.”

The fifth charge is related to the board’s evaluation of Cooper’s job performance and accuses him of unworthiness.

Cooper testified to private exchanges and some events from public meetings with Beasley, Babineaux and Chassion to support his bias claims, though Conque frequently questioned Roy on whether the instances rose to the level of bias or prejudgment by board members. The judge did not hear testimony Thursday from the three board members.

Two of the charges against Cooper are associated with the hiring of Thad Welch as a special assistant to the superintendent over maintenance, facilities, grounds and transportation, who was hired without meeting educational requirements. The board didn’t question the decision until January 2013 — nearly a year after Welch was hired.

When Cooper wouldn’t remove Welch from the job, the board took action to rescind its decision to hire Welch and removed funding for the position.

Cooper still refused to terminate Welch, and the board reprimanded him for it in April 2013. Cooper has used a state law, Act 1, which transferred some personnel powers from the School Board to the superintendent as the basis for his decision not to fire Welch.

The board’s attorney, Paul LeBlanc, asked Cooper if he felt it was appropriate to defy the board when the board wanted Welch fired. Cooper said he explained his reasoning to the board — Act 1 — and “I was not defying.”

Cooper said that during a board meeting where the Welch issue was discussed, Chassion said, “Either Thad Welch needed to be fired, or the superintendent needs to be fired.”

Cooper said he felt at times that Chassion was “threatening and strong-arming” him and that the board member was upset over several decisions Cooper made, such as the reconstitution of Northside High School because it meant that some employees would be moved to other campuses.

“Has Mr. Chassion indicated that he has personal bias against you?” Roy asked Cooper.

“There were a couple of conversations where he said that I was being unfair to him,” Cooper said.

He added that Chassion said he was no longer the same man originally hired to be superintendent and that “he didn’t think he could support me anymore.”

Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau testified that she overheard Chassion tell Cooper in an agitated and strong tone that the reconstitution of Northside “may cost (Chassion) four to 500 votes.”

Billeaudeau said Chassion told Cooper, “If you do this, I’ll have to let the board know about the Thad Welch situation.”

Conque continued to interrupt Roy during his line of questioning of Cooper related to exchanges with Babineaux to remind the attorney that the hearing was not a debate on differing policies or personalities.

“This is not going to turn into some kind of lynch mob in court for the superintendent or the School Board,” Conque told Roy.

Roy told Conque that he thought the judge had already made up his mind on the bias issue.

“You’re saying I have to prove … what is going to happen three weeks from today. ... Only God can do that,” Roy told him.

At one point, Conque told Roy that he was dangerously close to being in contempt of court.

“I will not have you, sir, stand in my courtroom and tell me that I am biased and have prejudiced this case,” Conque told Roy.

Roy continued questioning Cooper about Babineaux. Cooper said he reported Babineaux, who was an attorney, to the disciplinary board of the state Bar Association for disclosing what was discussed in an executive session during an open board meeting. Later, Cooper testified that Babineaux never indicated he would vote to fire Cooper.

Cooper testified that he and Beasley had disagreements about the selection of an insurance administrator, with Beasley taking over the request for proposal process and pushing the board to hire a consultant and that the board later “had a problem with them.”

Conque reminded Roy that “disagreements are not the issue” and that Roy had not proved any bias, as he questioned Cooper about his interactions with Beasley.

Roy argued that the incident led to Beasley’s “complete change in attitude.”

Attorneys representing the School Board argued Thursday morning that Cooper’s claims were premature because the board had not yet taken any action against Cooper. Cooper has numerous judicial remedies that he may pursue if he’s terminated, said Paul LeBlanc, an attorney representing the School Board.

While Cooper has due process rights, such as receiving written charges against him and a hearing where he can defend himself, “there simply is no right to judicial review prior to termination,” LeBlanc argued.

LeBlanc asserted that Cooper was making an attempt to politicize board members’ decision.

“It disenfranchises certain districts by removing their representation,” LeBlanc argued.

The motives of the board can’t be determined until after action is taken, argued the board’s other attorney, Dennis Blunt. Blunt is the attorney hired to investigate the board’s complaints against Cooper, which led to the board accepting five charges against the superintendent.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.