LAFAYETTE — Lafayette Parish School Board Superintendent Pat Cooper defended the management decisions that could lead to his termination in nearly three hours of testimony Wednesday during the first day of his employment hearing.
Cooper repeatedly cited Act 1, a state law enacted in July 2012 that shifted the powers to hire and fire employees from school boards to superintendents, to justify his decisions related to his continued employment and payment of an employee in contradiction to the board’s directives.
He also cited the statute to justify payment of his own attorney’s $5,100 bill without board approval and the payment of five principals’ salaries outside of the board-approved salary schedule.
The hearing provided Cooper a stage to talk about his nearly two-year tug of war with the School Board that turned increasingly acrimonious as the weeks passed.
The charges against Cooper stem from a board-approved investigation of the superintendent conducted by attorney Dennis Blunt and his associates. Blunt and his associate, Paul LeBlanc, served in the role of prosecutors in the hearing.
Blunt told the board in his opening arguments that it has the option to discipline Cooper related to the charges.
“Hopefully, after the presentation of evidence, you’ll take the appropriate action and discipline Dr. Cooper, and I would suggest to you that the appropriate (action) is termination,” Blunt told the board.
Cooper’s attorney, Lane Roy, denied the claims against his client and called the investigation and proceeding a “witch hunt.” He warned the board that if it sought to replace Cooper that it will face a lawsuit for breach of contract.
Cooper started his tenure two years ago with support from only five members of the nine-member board. In the past year, that supported dwindled to a minority of three.
Two of the five charges against Cooper relate to his continued employment and payment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent over facilities, maintenance, grounds and transportation. Welch was hired in March 2012 even though he didn’t have the high school education required for the job.
Board members questioned the hiring and rescinded their decision in February 2013 and after Cooper refused to fire Welch, removing funding for the position a month later. When Cooper continued to employ Welch, the board reprimanded him in April 2013.
Cooper said he hired Roy as his attorney related to the board’s intention and then eventual reprimand of him. Cooper has claimed his contract states the board is responsible for his legal fees, though Blunt disagreed.
Cooper was asked about his need for legal counsel for a reprimand, which is something teachers frequently get without rising the level of a legal claim.
“Is it a legal claim?” Blunt asked.
“It’s an action against me and my reputation. I take that as a legal claim,” Cooper stated.
Earlier in the hearing, Roy asserted the board used the Welch issue “as another spoke in the wheel to roll over Pat Cooper.”
Cooper testified he consulted his attorney after the board’s votes in 2013 related to the hiring of Welch as his special assistant and funding the position.
“I had consulted with my legal counsel to see if I could terminate with no cause,” Cooper said. “I was given direction about that ... that he had a property right to this position.”
Blunt asked Cooper to cite specific provisions of Act 1 he felt allowed him to make decisions related to the hiring of five principals at higher rates of pay than other principals in the district.
Cooper has said in the past that he made the decision as a way to recruit principals in hard-to-fill positions.
Cooper read from the law, “The local school superintendent shall employ teachers by month or by year and affix their salaries ...”
Blunt asked Cooper if he thought that meant “since these five principals were teachers at some point although you are not employing them as teachers, you could pay them whatever you wanted, not in accordance to what was mandated by the salary schedule?”
Cooper said he followed the salary schedule and pro-rated their pay so that their daily rate worked out the same as other principals, but that they worked more days than others.
The board hired 9th Judicial District Attorney James “Jam” Downs to serve as the hearing officer. Early in the hearing, Downs denied two initial requests from Cooper’s attorney Lane Roy.
One request involved calling the board’s attorney, Blunt as a witness, which Downs said isn’t allowed in an employment hearing without a court order.
Roy’s second request was to postpone the hearing based on his claim that he and his client did not have access to a preliminary draft of Blunt’s investigative report of Cooper. The report led to the board’s acceptance of charges against Cooper.
After Downs denied Roy’s request to delay the proceedings, Roy told him he planned to file a complaint against the hearing officer.
“It’s clear that the background you bring here is a background closely (related) to the prosecutor. I’m sorry to say,” Roy said.
Downs dryly responded, “I’m sorry to hear you say that, too.”
The hearing continues at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. Cooper and chief financial officer Billy Guidry testified Wednesday.
Other witnesses sworn in but who did not testify on Wednesday included, Welch; Lawrence Lilly, former human resources director and deputy superintendent; Bruce Leininger, current human resources director; and two women who regularly attend School Board meetings, Ella Arsement and Ceci Verret. A certified public accountant will also be called as an expert witness.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.