LAFAYETTE — Cajundome Director Greg Davis filed a federal lawsuit against the Lafayette Parish School Board on Thursday asking the court to intervene and protect the board’s operating budget and Superintendent Pat Cooper’s job.
The filing comes one day after the board voted not to discuss Davis’ demand that it drop its investigation of Cooper and use 50 percent of last year’s budget for the upcoming school year or he’d file a lawsuit asking the court to step in.
In his lawsuit, Davis asks the court to make the board comply with a state law he said requires political agencies to roll forward with 50 percent of the prior year’s budget if they fail to adopt a budget by the end of the fiscal year.
The 50 percent budget provision would undo cuts the board made in the past few months to balance a $23.5 million shortfall.
The board has met more than a dozen times since mid-May to identify more than $20 million in cuts after rejecting budget proposals by Cooper aimed at protecting instructional expenses and salaries.
Davis’ attorney, Gary McGoffin, said the budget cuts raise a civil rights issue because of their potential impact on disadvantaged and minority students.
“Their intent is to override the professional expertise and authority of their Superintendent and substitute their own judgment,” the lawsuit states. “As a result, many of the cuts violate federal and state mandates and literally hundreds of staff positions may be terminated.
“The Superintendent has repeatedly warned of the ramifications of these Board actions to all students and that a disproportionate impact will be visited upon our most vulnerable student populations, the minority and at-risk communities,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also requests a permanent injunction against board members Mark Allen Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion to disqualify them from any future voting related to any termination proceedings against Cooper based on what Davis describes as their bias against the superintendent.
In the lawsuit, Davis alleges Cooper’s “constitutionally protected property interest in his employment is being impaired without due process as a result of the established bias” of Babineaux and Chassion.
In the suit, Davis cites incidents in which the two board members spoke in opposition to Cooper. It also cites a police report Chassion filed in February alleging that Cooper grabbed him and yelled at him during a meeting in executive session with other School Board members that was held behind closed doors.
The city prosecutor decided last month not to pursue charges because of a lack of evidence.
Cooper wasn’t Babineaux’s first choice for new superintendent in December 2011, while Chassion was one of five board members who voted in support of Cooper.
In June, Chassion gave Cooper the lowest performance rating on his evaluation — a 0.214 on an 8-point scale. Babineaux gave Cooper a 0.929. Cooper’s cumulative evaluation score was a 3.54 — a drop from last year’s 4.067.
The angst between Cooper and some board members isn’t new.
In April 2013, the board voted to reprimand Cooper for keeping an employee on the payroll after it removed the funding for the job from the budget.
The board had questioned the job — a new assistant to the superintendent position — when it was discovered the employee, Thad Welch, didn’t have the required high school education for the job. Welch remains on the payroll.
In July 2013, the board voted to hire an attorney to investigate Cooper, though the investigation didn’t get underway until sometime in May.
The board members who consistently support Cooper — Shelton Cobb, Mark Cockerham and Kermit Bouillion — have repeatedly asked other board members to state the reason for the investigation, and for updates on the probe and its costs but have received no response during School Board meetings.
Board President Hunter Beasley said Thursday that he has not received an update from Dennis Blunt, the attorney handling the Cooper investigation, in a few weeks.
“Mr. Blunt is gathering his facts, and when he’s ready, he’ll come to the board and present what information he has,” Beasley said.
Davis also asked the court for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to keep the board from taking action should it move to bring formal charges against Cooper.
The school district’s fiscal year ended June 30, and the board isn’t on target for budget approval until the last week of August or first week of September. That isn’t too far off from last year’s budget approval time line.
The school district technically has until Sept. 15 to turn in a budget to the state, district Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry has previously told the board.
In an interview with The Acadiana Advocate on Tuesday, Davis said using part of last year’s budget would allow time for a new board to get settled and make budget decisions for the remainder of the school year come January.
Board elections are in November.
Davis regularly attends board meetings and is involved in education advocacy groups such as the Lafayette Parish Public Stakeholders Council. During the board’s budget process, he’s spoken out against the board’s proposed budget cuts, which he says will dismantle the district’s turnaround plan pushed by Cooper and approved by the board in 2012.
In 2010, Davis made a run for School Board; however, he has said he has no plans to seek a seat on the board this year.
Referring to Davis’ suit, Beasley said, “If Mr. Davis wants to file a suit, that’s within his rights as a citizen. I don’t agree with it, but that’s not for me to decide. We’ll just take it one step at a time. Our attorneys will be involved and we’ll see what’s going on.”
The board’s attorney, Bob Hammonds, who was present at Wednesday’s meeting, said Thursday that he was traveling and declined comment because he had not yet seen the lawsuit.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.