While a political battle over the direction of Lafayette Parish public schools led to the ouster of its reform-minded superintendent, his subsequent court victory is a blow to not only the Acadiana board but school boards across the state, who have seen their authority diminished in recent years.
A Louisiana Supreme Court decision that rejected the Lafayette board's appeals has statewide implications.
The court refused last week to revisit a May appellate ruling that the School Board "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" when it terminated Cooper. The high court's decision could put the School Board on the hook to pay Cooper hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost salary and attorney fees.
We think this is justice.
Cooper's tenure as superintendent coincided with the passage of Act 1 of 2012, a law pushed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal. It explicitly gave superintendents more power over hiring and firing, trying to insulate professional decisions from the sometimes — in Lafayette, almost traditionally — capricious politics of school board members.
Cooper's sin was seeking to reform a system that has struggled in recent years. When three board members were replaced in the 2014 elections, a majority for reform was switched and the superintendent's days were numbered.
However, Act 1 remains the law and the courts have backed Cooper on every point. The Jindal law was a sweeping measure that affected other areas of schools, but we strongly supported the notion that schools ought not be micromanaged by board members with political agendas.
Other than several other counts thrown out at the District Court level, the appeals court said that the board wrongly accused him of improperly hiring staff under Act 1.
“Dr. Cooper applied the same salary schedule provisions and the same logic in his hiring of five principals, yet the board refused to recognize his authority to do the same when their roles were reversed by Act 1,” the ruling states.
School boards and superintendents across the state, as well as teacher unions that often have a strong influence in board elections, are going to be looking at the 3rd Circuit rulings in this case. Cooper was not always at odds with the teacher group in Lafayette, but quite often was, as the old political system suited them just fine.
Elections have consequences. Cooper's ouster and public dismay of the schools' direction, combined with anti-tax sentiment, doomed a subsequent tax proposal for desperately needed classrooms and new schools in Lafayette Parish.
But in terms of relationships between superintendents and boards across the state, the Cooper ruling is of larger importance.