It’s not easy to get rid of a school superintendent, and several of the people now serving on the Lafayette Parish School Board know this firsthand.
Seven of the nine members on the board in June 2007 voted to remove then-Superintendent James Easton from his job.
It didn’t involve hiring an attorney to look into Easton’s prior decisions — but saving on legal bills didn’t save the district any money. They agreed to buy out the final 18 months of Easton’s contract at a cost of $267,000.
Current board members Greg Awbrey, Hunter Beasley and Rae Trahan were on the board in 2007 and voted in favor of buying Easton out of his contract.
Fast-forward one superintendent and seven years later, and the same three board members — as well as Tommy Angelle, Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion — now appear to be gearing up for another superintendent ouster.
The current board has been patient in its attempts to push Cooper out of his job. After all, a five-member majority of the board voted in July 2013 to hire special counsel to begin an investigation that didn’t get underway until May.
The board didn’t receive a report on the investigative findings from its special counsel, Baton Rouge attorney Dennis Blunt, until last week. Cooper has said the findings weren’t surprising and involved issues the board has questioned in the past year. The two main issues stemmed from the hiring and pay of some principals at a different rate than others, as well as the hiring and employment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent over facilities and other operations, who didn’t have a high school diploma.
Blunt said Cooper’s actions were in violation of board policies, state laws and his own contract and the board should consider termination if he doesn’t resign. Based on the findings, six board members voted for more work by Blunt — to prepare formal charges to bring against the superintendent. After the charges are presented, a hearing for Cooper to defend them would be set.
Blunt was to present the charges to the board Sept. 3, but the path to a termination hearing hit another speed bump — Blunt didn’t show up for the board meeting. Blunt later said that he had told board president Hunter Beasley that he may be unable to attend due to an unexpected issue with another client. The meeting has been rescheduled for Thursday.
The odd absence of the board’s special counsel at the meeting just adds to the drama and mystery that’s played out at board meetings in the past year as the angst between Cooper and some board members has brewed.
It’s still unclear how much the ticket for the show will cost taxpayers.
Tense relations between board members and superintendents aren’t unique to this board and Cooper — or to Lafayette Parish.
A law — called Act 1 — enacted in July 2012 has been used by Cooper to defend many of the actions for which a majority of the board has questioned, even faulted, the superintendent. Those same issues are at the center of Blunt’s investigative report.
The law was designed to alleviate board interference in personnel decisions and prevent favoritism — taking the politics out of hiring.
Act 1 was broad legislation that also created changes in how teachers are evaluated and linked their pay to their performance. Those aspects of the law have been challenged and are still under judicial review.
So far, no one has challenged the aspect of Act 1 that shifted personnel powers from school boards to superintendents. Could that change depending on what comes next in Lafayette Parish?
Marsha Sills covers education for The Acadiana Advocate. Follow her on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.