The Lafayette Parish School Board needs to add $200,000 to its legal services budget to cover projected expenses through June and pay about $72,000 in unpaid invoices for October and November, Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry told board members Wednesday night.
Guidry explained to the new board — seven new members took office earlier this month — that legal expenses increased substantially because of legal challenges from former superintendent Pat Cooper and the board’s investigation of Cooper. Guidry added that the $200,000 would cover expenses related to general counsel services and filing an answer to Cooper’s wrongful termination suit.
“Should there be further action taken by the superintendent (Cooper), we’d have to request additional funds,” Guidry said. “There’s no way to predict what may occur there.”
A proposed budget revision to cover the $200,000 with property tax revenues was on the school board’s agenda as an introduction item. No action was taken. The proposed revision will return to the board at its Feb. 4 meeting as an action item.
Last year was the first year the board had a private firm handle its general counsel services, and the school district also logged more attorney hours because of numerous legal challenges.
The board racked up about $120,300 in legal fees from July to November from its general counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, and about $90,000 in legal fees from the law firm Phelps Dunbar, its special counsel handling the board’s investigation of Cooper.
The findings of the investigation led to the board’s decision to terminate Cooper in November.
Additional legal work from pending litigation related to Cooper’s firing and the firing of Thad Welch, Cooper’s former special assistant, will add to the legal fees.
Guidry estimated legal expenses through June at about $375,000.
“About 75 percent of it relates to the lawsuit and the investigation and the employment hearing,” Guidry told the board.
The remaining 25 percent relates to month-to-month general counsel services, including an attorney’s time spent attending bimonthly board meetings. Those meetings were unusually frequent in the past year as the board struggled to adopt a budget.
Guidry noted the board typically holds six budget meetings a year, but last year had more than 20 because of disagreements about proposed spending plans.
It was the second meeting of the new board and some time was spent discussing its current agenda structure, which involves proposals brought before the board placed on an introduction agenda and then brought back before the board two weeks later in an action agenda.
When some board members attempted to move some introduction items to the action agenda, retired educator Pat Sonnier urged the board not to rush the matters unless they are urgent.
Board attorney Danielle Boudreaux told the board that their agenda is unique: “You guys are the only district that we’ve seen with an agenda like this with items that come in as an introduction and a mandatory two-week waiting period. No one else does this.”
She added that the way the board runs its meetings is “not efficient and it’s not helpful to the board nor to the public. Most boards put an item on the agenda. They discuss it. They vote on it. If the public sees it on the agenda, they come to the meeting. They talk about it.”
Board president Tommy Angelle said changes to the agenda structure are forthcoming. He also announced the creation of, and made appointments to, three board committees: executive, finance and facilities. Angelle, vice president Dawn Morris and Erick Knezek are on the executive committee. Justin Centanni, Britt Latiolais and Tehmi Chassion are on the finance committee and Jeremy Hidalgo, Mary Morrison and Elroy Broussard are on the facilities committee.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.