LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board voted Wednesday to ask the Legislative Auditor’s Office to review financial issues identified in an investigative report on Superintendent Pat Cooper’s management decisions.
The findings of the investigation suggest Cooper violated state law, board policy and his own contract in making some decisions related to budget and personnel issues in the past two years. The investigative attorney, Dennis Blunt, recommended the board seek an auditor’s expertise to review potential budgetary violations related to the payment of some principals at a different salary level than others and the payment of a special assistant to the superintendent after board members removed the line item funding for the job.
The board voted 7-2 to seek the legislative auditor’s assistance. Board members Mark Cockerham and Shelton Cobb voted no. Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux, Kermit Bouillion, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted in support.
The principal pay issue was flagged earlier this year by the board’s own external auditor, who advised the board to seek a legal opinion. The board had taken no action on the suggestion for an outside opinion until Wednesday.
Blunt’s findings led to the board accepting formal charges against Cooper earlier this month. Cooper will have a chance to defend himself against the five charges during a hearing tentatively scheduled Oct. 10.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the board voted 8-1 to hire 9th Judicial District Attorney James “Jam” Downs to preside as the hearing officer at Cooper’s hearing. Downs will serve as special counsel and could be eligible to receive $175 an hour for his legal services.
Cobb voted against hiring Downs.
The board discussed a few other issues related to the investigation — such as some board members’ request for a release of Blunt’s full report and Cooper’s own request for an invoice from Blunt’s firm by the end of the month.
Cooper said the special resolution the board approved to hire Blunt specifies the board would receive monthly invoices from Blunt’s law firm. No invoices have been received.
Cooper said he was worried about escalating attorney fees between general counsel and special counsel fees.
“I’m just wondering how do we pay that?” Cooper asked. “The big issue for me tonight is will the board ask Mr. Blunt to deliver his invoice so we can see where we are.”
Cooper said legal expenses will increase with the board’s hiring of a hearing officer to preside over his hearing next month.
At one point, Cooper said the hearing could cost the board $500 an hour for Downs, Blunt and general counsel to be present. Board attorney Bob Hammonds corrected him, informing the board that general counsel recused itself from the hearing because the attorneys work with the superintendent and his staff on the school system’s day-to-day operations.
“So, we get a break. Only $350,” Cooper quipped.
Bouillion asked what happens if the board goes over its legal services budget.
Cooper said there is no budget specific to the investigation. The board’s legal services budget this year is more than $200,000.
Angelle called the discussion on the legal fees “nothing more than political pandering.”
“The superintendent says $500 an hour. That’s not true. … We’re paying less than $500 an hour. We’re paying less than the superintendent paid for his attorney,” Angelle said.
“What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” Cooper shot back.
Cobb suggest the board ask the Blunt to release his report to the board members, who have received the information only through a PowerPoint presentation.
Cobb, Bouillion and Cockerham have previously requested a copy of the full report, but were denied access to it by Blunt. The board’s general counsel has also advised that the board not view the full report because it could prejudice some board members in Cooper’s hearing. Blunt has said the full report contains information that is not pertinent to the charges the board has accepted against Cooper.
Cobb’s request was on the agenda as an introduction item. The board will vote on it at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 1.
In other business, the board rejected in a 4-5 vote a request to relax educational requirements for bus drivers as a way to fill open positions. Staff had requested the board relax current policy that requires drivers to have a high school diploma or equivalency diploma.
Awbrey, Cockerham, Bouillion and Cobb voted in support of the proposal. Beasley, Babineaux, Trahan, Chassion and Angelle voted against it.