It’s pretty rare for a school board election to attract attention beyond the borders of the parish involved, but that’s not the case with this year’s heated contests in Lafayette Parish.
Across the state, other school boards are before the voters, but the Lafayette races are important as precedents for how much power a local superintendent has. Those races could influence an ongoing conflict between Superintendent Pat Cooper and the majority of the current Lafayette board.
The root of the issue is in Act 1, the law passed in 2012 at the behest of Gov. Bobby Jindal and a number of education reform groups. The law is being challenged in the courts on procedural grounds but remains in force.
One major goal was to eliminate what school reform groups called “micromanagement” of schools by elected board members.
Act 1 gives superintendents broad powers over hiring, firing and promotions of school employees. The law eliminates long-standing provisions for school board approval of most personnel decisions. In the past, some board members have treated schools in their districts as virtual fiefdoms, requiring personal approval of employee changes.
The goal of reformers in Act 1 is that the elected officials act as overseers, a board of directors if you will, but the day-to-day decision-making in the schools is left to professionals.
Cooper is one of the state’s most distinguished superintendents, and he has spearheaded a successful effort to turn around some of the system’s worst-performing schools. We agree with Brian West, one of the Lafayette board candidates in the Nov. 4 election: “We may not be where we want to be now,” West said of local schools, “but we’re not where we were.”
That said, there is no question that Cooper’s initiatives have rubbed a majority of the outgoing board the wrong way. We hope that a new board will support and extend his turnaround plan, but the broader issue for other school boards is less about the merits of the turnaround plan than Cooper’s aggressive use of the powers given him under Act 1.
There are other issues in Lafayette, including the impact on the traditional system’s budget of new charter schools. But if a superintendent like Cooper takes on the controversial responsibilities given him under Act 1, is that a precedent for other superintendents to be more powerful in the often-delicate balance between board members and their chief executive?
The hiring and firing of superintendents remains in the hands of elected board members in most parishes. State law before Act 1 generally directed that board members not be micromanagers of the schools, but — depending on the parish and depending on the superintendent’s prestige or lack thereof — that wise policy was often enough violated by political interference.
We hope that Lafayette Parish voters will elect a new board committed to the tough but very promising action promised in Cooper’s turnaround plan. But it’s certainly true that whatever happens, the consequences for Act 1’s operations in other parishes will be noted beyond the boundaries of Lafayette.