LAFAYETTE — Contrary to an opinion by an attorney for the Louisiana Department of Education, Lafayette Parish School Board President Hunter Beasley said Tuesday he doesn’t believe the board acted improperly last month when it made and approved changes to the school district’s 2014-15 budget.
“We had talked to our legal staff and they felt it was appropriate to make changes, so that advice drove what we did,” Beasley said.
On Sept. 15, the board approved a version of the budget that included its own cuts and offsets to bridge a more than $23.5 million shortfall rather than accept a balanced budget proposed by Superintendent Pat Cooper.
Cooper submitted the approved budget to the Louisiana Department of Education with a letter asking state officials to review the budget for any legal issues. Cooper objected to the board’s cuts, claiming they were in violation of state law.
Cooper said he received verbal confirmation from Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White during his visit to Lafayette on Monday that the board did not legally adopt the budget.
In an internal memo, Joan Hunt, the state department’s general counsel, advised White that because the board made substantial changes to Cooper’s proposed budget, it should have advertised the budget again for public inspection and held another public hearing. Hunt wrote that her opinion was based on research of the state budgetary law and advice of the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
“The superintendent submitted a budget that was then substantially modified by the board and then passed at the same meeting,” Hunt wrote, adding that “it does not appear that a budget has been legally adopted.”
The memo, which did not address Cooper’s complaints that the board’s cuts violated state law, appears to have been written at White’s request because of the media coverage of the board’s budget process.
“Given ongoing news coverage of the Lafayette Parish School Board and its 2014-2015 budget, you asked for an analysis of applicable law,” Hunt wrote to White, noting that neither the Department of Education nor the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has “jurisdiction over the business affairs of local school boards.”
Cooper said he hasn’t received any directives related to the budget from White or Hunt, and he doesn’t expect any.
“There’s nothing in the law for them to do other than to tell us whether it’s a legal budget or not,” Cooper said. “Supposedly, that puts (the budget) back in the hands of the local school board and superintendent. As far as I know there’s only two choices: that we use 50 percent (of last year’s budget) for the next six months until the new board takes over or this board could ask me to craft a new budget and give it to them and start the process all over.”
Cooper said he plans to continue to operate the district with 50 percent of the 2013-14 budget.
“Right now, we’re at who’s right and who’s wrong,” Beasley said. “I’m sure Dr. Cooper is going to go with the Department of Education interpretation. It seems that Dr. Cooper — whatever he feels is proper to do, he’s going to go ahead and do it.
“We could give him a directive, but he most likely would not follow suit.”
Cooper also filed a lawsuit in district court Monday asking a judge to intervene in the budget process and order the school board to continue operations at 50 percent of last year’s budget until a new board can take office in January.
Beasley said he has not seen the lawsuit, which also asks the judge to bar him and board members Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion from voting in any personnel hearings involving Cooper based on their alleged bias against the superintendent.
The lawsuit also asks the judge to stall Cooper’s Oct. 14 employment hearing until a judgment on the bias claims can be made. Cooper faces five charges related to budgetary and personnel decisions he’s made.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.