LAFAYETTE — A decision on Superintendent Pat Cooper’s legal claims that three Lafayette Parish School Board members should be disqualified from voting in his upcoming administrative hearing won’t come until Wednesday, 15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque said Friday following two days of testimony.
Cooper filed a lawsuit in district court earlier this month that asked the judge to bar board members Mark Babineaux, Tehmi Chassion and board President Hunter Beasley from voting in the hearing, which could lead to disciplinary action or his termination.
Cooper contends that the board members are biased against him. He also asked the court to intervene in the board’s budget process, saying the budget was illegally adopted. He requested that the court force the board to continue using last year’s budget until new board members take office in January following the Nov. 4 election.
The superintendent’s hearing is scheduled for the day after the election. The board will consider five charges against Cooper related to his personnel and budgetary decisions, as well as his score on his job evaluation. Conque said he’s giving attorneys a deadline of Tuesday afternoon to file briefs to support their stances and he’d make a decision by Wednesday. “Be patient with the results of this and move on best you can,” Conque said.
The judge appeared skeptical of some lines of questioning by Cooper’s attorney, Lane Roy, on Thursday, repeatedly saying differences of opinion didn’t necessarily demonstrate bias. The judge on Friday heard again from Cooper, along with Nick Pugh, whose family foundation supports educational programs, Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry and the three board members.
Pugh took the stand on Friday, discussing “discontent” between board members and the superintendent. Pugh said he’s attempted to meet with both sides “to get the focus back on education.”
He said that sometime in the spring, he met with Babineaux, who is an attorney and handles work for his family, and asked the board member about plans for the investigation of Cooper. Pugh testified that Babineaux told him that the board planned to dismiss Cooper for cause.
Pugh also added that he met with Babineaux again about two weeks ago and encouraged the board to settle its disagreements with Cooper.
“He said, ‘Look, I was elected,’ and he thought he had a duty and that the superintendent had violated rules,” Pugh said and added that Babineaux said Cooper should be dismissed.
The board’s attorney, Brian Blackwell, asked Pugh if he felt that Babineaux and the board would do what they felt was right and their duty as board members.
Pugh agreed and added, “I think everybody on that School Board thinks they are doing right. I think they’re misguided.”
Babineaux later testified that Pugh has met frequently with him as an “envoy of remediation of public perception of the board.” Babineaux added that Pugh’s “constant request of me has been to back off the investigation.”
When questioned by Roy, Babineaux denied ever saying Cooper has “got to go.” The board member said Pugh’s recollection could have been “a reflection of responses I’ve been getting from my constituency.”
Babineaux said he did tell Pugh that he couldn’t trust the superintendent “because he misled us in the Thad Welch situation.”
Two of the five charges against Cooper relate to his handling of Welch’s employment. Welch was hired by the board in March 2012 as a special assistant to the superintendent for grounds, transportation, facilities and maintenance. Later, the board discovered Welch didn’t have the education required for the position and removed funding for the job. The board reprimanded Cooper in April 2013 for continuing to employ Welch.
“Over a year ago, you concluded Dr. Cooper had deceived you?” Roy asked Babineaux.
“That’s a matter of public record,” Babineaux responded.
“That’s your conclusion,” Roy said.
“And several other board members’,” Babineaux responded.
Roy asked Chassion about a call he made to police about Cooper. The incident occurred in February during executive session, and Chassion reported to police officers that Cooper grabbed him during the closed-door meeting.
“You attempted to get the superintendent arrested?” Roy asked Chassion.
“I didn’t,” Chassion said. “I simply made a report with the police.”
No one was arrested.
Blackwell asked each board member individually whether the men planned to be objective when considering the charges against Cooper during the hearing. Each said they have not predetermined Cooper’s guilt or innocence ahead of the hearing.
Conque also has been asked to decide whether the board’s budget was legally adopted. Roy argued that the board approved its own version of the budget, while state law requires that the superintendent prepare the budget. The version adopted by the board was never properly advertised and no public hearing was held on the board’s version of the budget, Roy said.
System CFO Guidry testified Friday that the version of the budget adopted by the board was “a different budget” than what was proposed by Cooper.
“The main differences were the manner in which they were balanced,” Guidry said.
Guidry said the public had an opportunity to review the board’s version of the budget throughout the review process, which involved 20 meetings.
Roy attempted to ask Guidry to comment on the contents of the budget and the impact of the board’s cuts versus Cooper’s proposed budget; however, opposing counsel objected to Roy’s questions about the merits or contents of the budget. Conque agreed with the counsel’s objections and reminded Roy several times that the purpose of the hearing was not to decide on the legality of the budget’s contents but the legality of the adoption process.
“I can’t solve all the problems of the Lafayette Public School System in this hearing,” Conque said at one point Friday. “I have to stick to what’s in front of me.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.