Finger pointing. Shouting. Bumping chairs.
Although the allegations sound like they could come from one of Jefferson Parish’s public schools, they form the heart of a dispute that saw two members of the parish’s School Board facing off in court Friday.
Board members Michael Delesdernier and Cedric Floyd have been bitter foes over the past four years, and each has taken flak for their combative and aggressive style. But Delesdernier said Floyd went too far at a July board meeting, shouting and jabbing a finger near his eye during a closed-door discussion and having to be held back twice by other officials.
Delesdernier said that, for his safety, he needs a court order requiring Floyd to stay at least 3 feet away from him. While seven board members or school administrators testified for 5 1/2 hours Friday about the incident, a ruling isn’t expected until the end of the month, a few days before an election in which both men will be on the ballot.
The two men, and several of the witnesses, differ on the details of what happened when board members went into executive session July 2 to discuss turning the chronically underperforming Woodmere Elementary School in Harvey over to Celerity, a California-based charter school company.
The executive session was called so board members could discuss whether the plan for the school, which has a predominantly black population, would affect the desegregation order that covers Jefferson Parish schools.
Delesdernier, board President Mark Morgan, board member Pat Tovrea and school system attorney Patricia Adams testified that Floyd was enraged by that discussion.
After Adams presented her argument that the plan would not violate the court order, Floyd — the only black member of the board and the only one who would eventually vote against the Celerity proposal — began arguing against the idea.
Floyd and his attorneys described his argument as “a presentation.” Nearly all agree his voice was raised and he was angry or agitated — in fact, portions of the proceedings could be heard in the main meeting room next door — and Adams described his rebuttal as a “tirade” that she said was unprofessional.
Asked about his tone, Floyd said on the stand, “I talk this way, and this is the way I talk.” He also described his demeanor as respectful.
At that point in the meeting, Delesdernier got up from his seat and started to walk out of the room but first told Floyd that he should be more respectful to the school staff. Some witnesses said he was several feet away from Floyd at the time, though Floyd said he was standing right behind his seat and shouting at him.
Floyd then “jumped” out of his seat and confronted Delesdernier, “getting in his face,” as Adams described it.
Several witnesses said that during the argument, Floyd was shouting at Delesdernier, puffing out his chest and pointing a finger near his eye. That serves as a major argument in Delesdernier’s request for a restraining order.
“I’m afraid of someone who could fly off the handle, having his finger within a millimeter of my eye and poke my eye out, hurting my ability to feed my family,” said Delesdernier, who is an attorney. While the witnesses agreed that Floyd pointed his finger at Delesdernier’s face, they also said Floyd did not specifically threaten him or appear to be trying to blind him.
Floyd said he saw Delesdernier’s comment as an attempt to shut him down and that he responded in kind.
“I told him he needed to shut up and stop talking,” Floyd said. He also said he wasn’t trying to get so close to Delesdernier but wound up face to face with him as he got out of his chair.
Floyd and School Board member Etta Licciardi said Delesdernier made disparaging comments about Floyd during the incident, though other witnesses said Delesdernier stood quietly with his hands at his side. Licciardi, however, said she didn’t actually see the confrontation because it happened behind her chair.
She described the fight as “like white noise” because she had heard the two argue so many times.
“I was a middle school principal, and this reminds me of the kind of thing you see on a middle school campus: One spurs on the other, and the other reacts,” Licciardi said.
Licciardi and Floyd have typically been on the same side on issues facing the school system, with Delesdernier and Tovrea, who were elected as part of a business-backed slate of candidates in 2010, typically on the opposing side. That slate of candidates, which has a slim majority on the nine-member board, has been more supportive of policies proposed by Superintendent James Meza than the other members of the board.
School Board attorney Mike Fanning, who used to work in law enforcement, got between the two men July 2 to break up the confrontation — a fact that was later brought up as evidence they never actually touched. But Delesdernier said that after they were separated, Floyd “charged” him again and had to be physically restrained by Tovrea.
Meantime, officials had alerted a Jefferson Parish deputy who attends all the board’s meetings about the incident, but he was never brought into the room.
After the executive session ended, Delesdernier said, he sat back down in his seat on the dais but Floyd, walking back to his own seat, bumped into the chair, pushing Delesdernier into the desk.
Floyd denied that, saying he didn’t recall touching Delesdernier’s chair at all and that if he did so, it was accidental as he tried to squeeze behind the seat to get to his own. No other member of the School Board or the administration said they saw that incident.
Yet another chair issue arose the next time the board met in executive session, after Delesdernier had taken out a temporary restraining order against Floyd requiring that he stay 3 feet away. After Tovrea cracked a joke about keeping the two men separate this time, Floyd jumped into the seat next to Delesdernier, several board members said.
“He sat next to Mr. Delesdernier and started saying, ‘What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it?’ ” Morgan said.
It will be up to 24th Judicial District Court Judge Nancy Miller to decide whether to grant Delesdernier’s request for a more permanent injunction that would keep the two men apart. That ruling will come at the end of the month, as requested by Floyd’s attorney, who sought to delay a decision until he had time to file a legal memo on the case.
Both Delesdernier and Floyd are seeking re-election Nov. 4.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.