A district judge on Tuesday upheld the Lafayette Parish School Board’s decision to fire Pat Cooper in November, though it was based on only one of the four charges the board brought against the then-superintendent to justify his firing.
The School Board misinterpreted the law when it accepted three charges against Cooper during his termination hearing in November, 15th Judicial District Judge Patrick Michot said after hearing two days of arguments in the trial Monday and Tuesday.
The three charges related to Cooper’s continued employment and payment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent over maintenance and other operations, and Cooper using board funds for $5,100 in legal expenses from April to June 2013 — around the time the board formally reprimanded him over Welch’s employment.
However, Michot upheld the fourth charge related to Cooper’s payment of five school principals at a different pay than others on the board-approved salary schedule.
After the trial Tuesday, Cooper said he saw the outcome as a sort of victory because his case sets judicial precedent for other superintendents.
“I think this was a bigger issue than me,” he said. He referred to state legislation, Act 1, that gave superintendents more authority in making personnel decisions and running school systems.
“I think we affirmed two parts of Act 1 and that’s the superintendent’s ability to hire and fire,” Cooper said. “This is not about me, but the children of Louisiana.”
He described the decision as “a victory for public education in Louisiana even though it was not a victory for me.”
During the trial Tuesday, Cooper’s attorney Lane Roy called the trial “a test case for Act 1.” The law, enacted in 2012, made several changes to education law related to teacher tenure and evaluations and also shifted personnel decisions from school boards to superintendents.
Aspects of the law have been challenged, but Cooper’s case is likely the first that challenged how the law applies to a superintendent’s authority over the hiring and firing of employees. Cooper routinely cited Act 1 during disputes with School Board members over his management decisions. He also cited the law as his defense during his termination hearing.
His rationale, though, didn’t fly with the then-board, which voted 7-2 in November to terminate him after a two-day employment hearing. During the hearing, the board considered five charges against Cooper related to his personnel and management decisions.
A supermajority, or six of nine board votes, was required for a charge to be accepted. The board voted to accept four of the charges. Two were specific to Welch; another was related to the payment of Roy’s bill; and another was related to the principals’ pay issue. A fifth charge that Cooper should be terminated due to an alleged unfavorable job evaluation did not receive a supermajority of the board’s vote.
Cooper said he has not yet decided whether to appeal Michot’s decision.
Roy said state law gives superintendents the authority to affix salaries. But the board’s attorney, Dennis Blunt, said Cooper violated that law when he set principals’ salaries that weren’t aligned with the salary schedule.
Blunt cited to Michot part of the law that states the governing authority — or School Board — has the power to set salary schedules.
During his termination hearing, Cooper had defended his decision, citing a need to recruit principals to lead at-risk schools, and explained that they worked the number of days that were aligned with their pay in the salary schedule.
“He paid them in excess of the salary schedule,” Blunt told Michot. “That was a clear violation of the salary schedule. It was a deviation of the salary schedule and violation of board policy.”
“I can’t say that the board exceeded its authority in ruling against Mr. Cooper,” Michot said following Blunt’s argument. “So, if they want to terminate him on that one thing, they can do so. ... I affirm the termination.”
Blunt was the attorney the board hired last year to investigate Cooper. After his investigation, he recommended that the board consider five charges against Cooper. Blunt also served as a type of prosecutor in Cooper’s termination hearing.
He is continuing to represent the board in another legal matter pending in state district court — the board’s demand for Cooper to pay it back for expenses he made without its approval, including the $5,100 he paid to Roy in 2013.
Cooper filed a counter demand alleging the board owes him money for breach of contract. It’s unclear how Michot’s ruling will affect the demand claims.
A judge heard arguments earlier this month on the board’s request to throw out Cooper’s demand for money from the board and said a written judgment would be given at a later date. So far, no ruling has been entered into the court record.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.