LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board voted 7-2 Thursday to terminate Superintendent Pat Cooper’s contract effective immediately, citing a number of management concerns.
As Cooper’s executive assistant, Melva Perry, read the final vote, her voice cracked and she grew emotional: “seven for, two against.” The two votes in support of Cooper were made by his steadfast board supporters, Kermit Bouillion and Shelton Cobb.
Cooper has used parts of Act 1, the state law that shifted the powers to hire and fire employees from the School Board to superintendents, to justify decisions he’s made since the law took effect in July 2012.
He cited the law to defend his decisions that led to his employment hearing, which began Wednesday and ended with the board voting to end his tenure 13 months earlier than the end of his four-year contract.
“I have no regrets,” Cooper said after the vote. “I feel like we’ve done a great job in the past three years. …
“The whole issue of this firing, that’s part of the game. We have six people who control Lafayette and the education system, and that’s the way it is.”
Prior to the vote, Bouillion suggested that Cooper be suspended without pay from Dec. 1 through Jan. 5, but only he and Cobb voted in favor of the recommendation.
The hearing was a chance for Cooper to defend his actions to the School Board, but his words held little weight for the seven members who repeatedly voted Thursday night that evidence presented during the hearing proved he was guilty of unworthiness, inefficiency and breach of contract and that he failed to comply with board policy and state law on four of five charges levied against him related to his management decisions.
Board members Hunter Beasley, Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan, Tehmi Chassion and Melinda Mangham all voted in support of four of the five charges. Mangham was appointed to the board last week to replace another board member who stood in a minority in support of Cooper in the past two years — Mark Cockerham. Cockerham was forced to resign his position last month for his move out of district.
Four of those charges were related to personnel and budgetary decisions Cooper made in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years allegedly in violation of state law and board policies. The fifth charge on “unworthiness” related to Cooper’s job performance evaluation score. Cooper received aa 3.54 on an 8-point scale. Cooper’s contract states he could be dismissed for an unsatisfactory score.
That vote was 5-4, with Mangham, Cobb, Bouillion and Awbrey voting no.
The final vote doesn’t necessarily settle the matter of Cooper’s employment. Before the board went into a closed-door session to deliberate on the charges, Cooper told them he’d file suit if they decided to terminate him.
“Yeah, 43 years a spotless reputation; yeah, I’m suing. I’ll tell you that because I don’t think you’re doing the right thing,” Cooper said.
It’s been a rocky two years for Cooper, as a majority of the board has fought him on his many of his recommendations and his decisions, resulting in the board’s decision to call for an investigation of him last year. That investigation didn’t get underway until May and led to the board’s acceptance of five charges against the superintendent in September.
State law requires that a school board notify a superintendent of charges and provide a hearing as a forum to answer and provide defense to the charges prior to termination.
In a hearing stylized as a mock trial, the nine board members subbed for a 12-person jury, and Rapides Parish District Attorney James “Jam” Downs acted as a hearing officer in place of a judge.
Cooper’s attorney, Lane Roy, headed up defense, and the role of prosecutor was played by Dennis Blunt, the attorney the board hired in May to investigate Cooper, and his associate, Paul LeBlanc. Both attorneys defended the School Board last month in district court related to Cooper’s civil injunction against the board and three board members. Cooper had asked the court to intervene in the budget process and to disqualify board members Babineaux, Beasley and Chassion from voting in his employment hearing because of their alleged bias. A district judge denied Cooper’s claims.
The hearing covered the board’s main gripes against Cooper that seemed to begin in early 2013 with a majority of the board’s challenge of the March 2012 hiring of Thad Welch as a special assistant to Cooper. As part of his duties, Welch acts as a liaison between Cooper and departments of facilities, grounds, maintenance and transportation.
Board members questioned Welch’s hiring first in January 2013 after learning Welch didn’t have the high school education required for the job. They rescinded the decision in February 2013 and then removed funding for the position a month later after Cooper refused to fire Welch. In April 2013, the board reprimanded Cooper for continuing to employ and pay Welch. Two of the five charges were related to Welch’s employment and payment.
During closing arguments, Blunt told the board he offered significant evidence to justify Cooper’s termination.
“For you to have been subjected to repeated efforts to get the same board action done would suggest to me that this gentleman has not operated your system in sufficient fashion,” Blunt said.
Another charge was related to the hiring of five principals at a different salary than others. Cooper also faced a charge for the unapproved payment of his $5,100 legal bill to his attorney, Lane Roy, last year.
On Thursday, Cooper reiterated his stance that Act 1 gives him the authority to employ and pay Welch and set some principals’ pay at a different rate than others.
On the matter of his evaluation, Cooper testified Thursday that the board is in violation of his contract for noncompliance, including failure to meet with him to develop goals and objectives and to adopt an evaluation instrument. Cooper also claimed the board has routinely violated his contract by bringing issues up on the board floor, rather than directly to him as required in his contract.
Roy argued that if the board had breached Cooper’s contract, then it doesn’t have the right to bring the “garbage bag charge that he hasn’t done a good job.”
Cooper later testified that his contract does not define what constitutes a negative evaluation and questioned the evaluation process itself.
For nearly two hours, the board considered testimony from Tim Green, a Monroe-based certified public accountant with experience auditing school boards.
Green testified that he’d question the payment of principals or any employee at a rate that contradicts the set salary schedule as an audit finding that would require explanation and resolution. He testified that any deviations from the salary schedule would require board approval.
Cooper testified Thursday that he didn’t disregard the salary schedule and used it to set the salaries of the five principals who were hired and paid at 244 days. Cooper said that he prorated those principals’ pay and that they did work the additional days.
“We always use the salary schedule as our rock,” Cooper said, adding that Act 1 gave him the authority to fix the principals’ pay using the salary schedule.
Cooper said the incentive was needed to attract principals to the low-performing schools.
Human resources director Bruce Leininger also testified that the decision was made to deviate from the salary schedule after principals who were offered the jobs refused the initial salary offers, some which were $20,000 to $30,000 less than what they were currently making.
Green also testified that the board has the right to remove line-item funding for an employee’s salary, which is what was done with Welch’s salary. Welch is still being paid with existing funds in the budget. Green testified that while budgetary transfers are allowed, the transfers require the board’s ratification.
“It’s my understanding that the board did not ratify that. This budget policy seems like you would need that ratification for that to be an appropriate transaction,” Green said.
Later, in response to Babineaux’s questions related to Welch’s continual payment after the board’s removal of funding, Green said: “I don’t think you can be using budget transfers to negate what the board just did. That would make me nervous.”
On the issue of the payment of Roy’s legal bill last year, Cooper received opinions from the then-board attorney and the board’s special counsel that it would be inappropriate and illegal for the board to pay it. Cooper testified again Thursday that he believed that his contract allowed the payment.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 7, 2014, to correct that board member Kermit Bouillion suggested t hat Cooper be suspended without pay from Dec. 1 through Jan. 5, not with pay.