LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board voted 6-3 on Thursday to accept five formal charges against Superintendent Pat Cooper for his actions related to personnel decisions, payment of his attorney’s legal bill and a majority of the board’s evaluation of his performance.
The board set a hearing within 30 days for Cooper to defend himself against the charges. The board resolution accepting the charges allows Cooper to continue working until it holds a hearing.
Cooper denied the allegations.
“After hearing the charges, my true belief is further confirmed that the charges are not brought to help children but to prevent change,” Cooper said before the board voted. “They are not brought because I have done anything wrong but because I have pushed the envelope ... and cut out the politics.”
During its special meeting Thursday, the board also voted 6-3 to hire James “Jam” Downs, 9th Judicial District attorney, to act as its hearing officer. A date for the hearing on the charges will be worked out among attorneys.
Voting against both decisions were board members Shelton Cobb, Mark Cockerham and Kermit Bouillion, a minority who have stood together in their support of the embattled superintendent.
Dennis Blunt, the attorney hired to investigate Cooper, prepared the charges for the board to consider at the meeting. They were included within two resolutions that presented the option of Cooper continuing to work pending the hearing or for the board to suspend him with pay until a hearing is held. The board opted against a suspension.
The charges against Cooper were not read aloud at the meeting, however, Cooper provided a copy of them to news reporters after the meeting.
In four instances, he was accused of “unworthiness, inefficiency, breach of contract and failure to comply with board policy and state law.” In the fifth, relating to the board’s evaluation of his performance, he was charged only with unworthiness.
Two charges stem from the March 2012 hiring and continued employment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent over facilities, grounds, transportation and maintenance.
The resolution containing the charges notes that Cooper refused to fire Welch after the board voted in February 2013 to reconsider its decision to hire Welch for the position and that Cooper continued to pay Welch after the board removed line-item funding for Welch’s job.
Cooper also was charged with violating board policy and state law for asking the board to pay his own legal bill to the firm of Preis & Roy for the period of April 2013 through May 2013. The payments came as the board was preparing to formally reprimand Cooper over the Welch issue, something it ultimately voted 6-3 to do in April.
The written charges provided by Blunt say Cooper directed Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry to pay the bill and payment was made in August 2013. The board refused to approve the payment, and Cooper has not made reimbursement for the expense, Blunt said in the charging resolution.
The charges against Cooper also relate to the payment of five principals at a different pay rate than other principals in the 2013-14 school year. Cooper has said the pay difference was offered for hard-to-fill positions at low-performing schools.
The charge of “unworthiness” of Cooper as superintendent is based on the evaluation of his performance by a majority of the board for the 2013-14 school year.
Cooper’s contract provides that he may be fired for cause if a majority of the board gives him a negative evaluation.
The board’s vote Thursday came after heated discussion among some board members and attorneys in the room, leading board member Greg Awbrey to suggest that security be present at any upcoming proceedings related to the charges.
Before the board’s vote, Cooper’s attorney, Lane Roy, asked that two board members, Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion, recuse themselves from voting. Roy referenced a pending federal lawsuit filed by Cajundome director Greg Davis that asks the court to disqualify the two board members from any potential termination proceedings against Cooper.
“The claims made against Mr. Chassion and Mr. Babineaux are substantial. They are replete,” Roy said, questioning the members’ objectivity.
“Should this matter go forward, we plan to seek relief in the court system,” Roy said.
The board’s general counsel, Jon Guice, then advised the board that they all should consider Roy’s request for recusal.
“If any of you feel that you cannot be impartial in this case, then recuse yourself. If you feel you can, it is your option to sit in on this matter,” Guice said.
As the board attempted to move forward with the vote on accepting the charges, Roy asked the board to consider a motion for certain members to recuse themselves.
Board President Hunter Beasley attempted to cut Roy off, but the lawyer persisted in asking the board to consider a motion of recusal. Board members Awbrey and Chassion pushed to end the disruption so the vote on accepting the charges could proceed.
“Mr. Beasley, I warn you, sir. We will take the necessary legal action,” Roy said.
“This is out of order,” Chassion said.
“I don’t need you to get into this,” Beasley told Chassion. “Mr. Roy, I’ve taken your point.”
Roy continued to try to speak.
“Mr. Roy,” Beasley said.
“You will not control me, sir,” Roy interrupted. “You will not control me the way that you are trying to control the system.”
A short time later, Beasley tried to temper Cooper’s interjections when Cooper continued to direct questions to Blunt about the amount of money he’s charging the School Board for his services. Beasley told Cooper the questions were not relevant to the resolution.
Cooper said the board’s vote was related to Blunt’s investigation, which took a number of months.
“It has everything to do with it. ... I need to know how much we owe Mr. Blunt. Can we get an accounting of that tomorrow, Mr. Blunt?” Cooper asked.
Blunt did not make eye contact with Cooper during his questions.
Roy said after the meeting that he plans to either file a separate lawsuit challenging the board’s decision or to join the lawsuit that’s now pending in federal court.
Roy said he also wants to add Beasley to the list of board members who should recuse themselves based on alleged bias against Cooper. Roy claimed the board is rushing its process to beat the clock because elections are in November and a new board takes office in January.
“It’s a witch hunt,” Roy said.
The charges stem from an investigation of Cooper that the board hired Blunt to conduct. Blunt, who was hired in May, provided the board the findings of his investigation in late August in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.
Both Blunt and Guice said a copy of Blunt’s full investigative report was withheld from the board because it contained information that was irrelevant to the charges against Cooper and they didn’t want to prejudice board members in their decisions.
Bouillion questioned how he could be expected to make a decision on accepting the charges against Cooper when he did not have a copy of Blunt’s findings.
He showed four, small legal-sized sheets of paper he made notes on during Blunt’s PowerPoint presentation last month.
“I think it’s absolutely absurd as an elected official in this parish (that) this is all I have to base my opinion on,” Bouillion said, demanding a copy of Blunt’s full report.
Later in the meeting, Cobb made a similar request for a copy of the full report and Cockerham questioned why Beasley had been given access to the report. Beasley had said he had received a rough draft of the report. On Thursday, Blunt clarified that Beasley received limited information to help the attorney verify facts that were included in the report.
In response to Cobb’s request for the report on Thursday, Guice said it was a personnel record and its release would require a vote of a full majority of the board.
“It is not in the man’s personnel file unless you put it in there,” Cobb told Guice.
“Trying to antagonize attorneys” for the report is futile, Awbrey told Cobb and advised Cobb to make a request on the board agenda for the board to vote on whether or not to release the report.
“Having all this blustering is not doing anyone any good,” Awbrey said.
During the meeting, Davis — who filed the lawsuit pending in federal court — asked the board not to bring charges against Cooper.
Davis credited Cooper for his work in the school system and community, referencing a turnaround plan created by task force groups that provides recommendations on how to improve the district’s performance.
“Instead of considering charges to terminate Dr. Cooper, you should be working closely with him and his administration to fully fund and implement the turnaround plan for the children of our district,” Davis said.
Parent Ella Arsement also spoke in support of Cooper and told the superintendent that though he has made some mistakes, she hoped he continued to serve the district.
“The one constant that I’ve noticed is your focus on our children and trying to better the education for all children, to better our schools and to help our teachers,” Arsement said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.