Jeff School Board member casts decisive vote to have board pay his legal fees _lowres

Michael Delesdernier

Michael Delesdernier, who is leaving the Jefferson Parish School Board next month after a failed re-election bid, raised eyebrows this week with one of his final acts as a board member, voting to have the school district reimburse the legal expenses he piled up in a dispute with another board member.

Now, even though it would cost him $8,000, he is asking that his vote be stricken from the record — but not because he’s worried it may have violated state ethics rules, as some observers have suggested.

In fact, Delesdernier remains adamant that he acted appropriately. Instead, he wants his vote changed to “absent” because he hopes — for somewhat complicated reasons — that it will cement a precedent whereby all unbudgeted expenditures by the board will require a six-vote supermajority to pass.

In effect, Delesdernier sees the maneuver as a parting shot at the new board members who will take over in January, having wrested a majority of the seats from Delesdernier and his business-backed faction in this fall’s elections.

“Merry Christmas to the new board members,” he said Friday.

But whether his plan will actually change anything for the new board is an open question.

Starting next month, control of the board will be in the hands of union-backed board members who have battled fiercely with the school district’s leadership.

The sitting board, in which five members are backed by Jefferson business groups, voted 6-3 Wednesday to reimburse Delesdernier for the roughly $8,000 he spent on his case against fellow board member Cedric Floyd, stemming from what Delesdernier described as an “assault” by his colleague during a closed-door session in July.

Delesdernier won that case, and as a result, Floyd is required to stay 3 feet away from him.

“I didn’t need the money. I didn’t want the money. I wanted to hold Cedric Floyd accountable,” Delesdernier said in an interview.

Floyd on Wednesday accused the witnesses in the case, including school system staffers and other board members, of lying about what happened. He said he is appealing the decision by Judge Nancy Miller.

Delesdernier cast a vote in favor of having the school system reimburse his legal expenses after the system’s staff said the motion would require six votes to pass — instead of the typical five — because it involved spending surplus funds.

The board’s attorney recommended that Delesdernier not participate in the vote.

Delesdernier on Friday argued that he was simply being reimbursed for expenses related to his service on the board, something he described as routine.

He also said the vote should not have required the approval of a supermajority because the money was not coming from reserve funds in the budget.

But, he said, the board’s decision that six votes were needed creates a precedent that essentially all future unbudgeted spending will require a supermajority.

Because only five members of the new board were backed by the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, that precedent could hamstring their efforts.

“This is about giving power to the minority board members to avoid wasteful spending by the new majority,” Delesdernier said.

Changing his vote — and allowing the measure to fail — would make it clear that it would have taken a supermajority to pass, he said.

But it’s not clear there’s anything new about a supermajority requirement for unbudgeted spending.

Nearly all the money the board can decide to spend outside its formal budget comes from reserves built up over the years. While some of that money is earmarked for specific purposes, such as paying insurance premiums, the board can choose to dip into the rest for a variety of reasons, including covering budget shortfalls.

That fund can only be tapped with a supermajority vote, board attorney Michael Fanning said Wednesday night

While the proposal to reimburse Delesdernier specified the money would have to come from “non-reserved funds,” Finance Director Robert Fulton told the board the only money to pay for the plan would have to come from the reserves. So, whatever the final tally, the requirements for Wednesday’s vote follow established procedure.

It was not immediately clear whether there is a mechanism by which Delesdernier’s vote can be changed retroactively or if doing so would require the approval of the board as a whole. But Delesdernier said asking board President Mark Morgan to change the way the vote was recorded was proper and would not require any additional action by the board. Morgan did not respond to a request for comment on how he would handle the issue.

“The record’s not in yet; records get clarified all the time,” Delesdernier said. “Until the record’s final, it’s subject to amendment.”