LAFAYETTE — The state education department says it has yet to receive a copy of the parish School Board’s 2014-15 budget with the required certification that it was adopted following steps outlined in state law.
Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White, who weighed in on the budget issue in a memo to Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper dated Tuesday, stopped short of stating that the School Board’s budget was not legally adopted. However, he outlined state laws that public bodies are required to follow when adopting a budget.
The education department’s general counsel, Joan Hunt, had issued an undated memo to White that said it appeared the budget wasn’t legally adopted.
She wrote that the board made substantial changes to the budget without again advertising it for public inspection.
Another public hearing also should have been held for comments on the substantially changed budget, Hunt wrote.
White sent Cooper an email dated Sept. 22 from the Legislative Auditor’s Office’s general counsel, Jenifer Schaye, to Hunt supporting Hunt’s conclusion.
White’s correspondence to Cooper came the day before a district judge is set to rule on Cooper’s claims that the board didn’t legally adopt the budget, as well as his claims that three board members should be barred from voting in Cooper’s upcoming administrative hearing due to their alleged bias against him.
Cooper said Tuesday that White’s correspondence was filed into the court record for district Judge Durwood Conque to consider as he prepares to make his ruling on Cooper’s claims sometime Wednesday.
Cooper said that while he submitted a copy of the board’s adopted budget to the state, he did not sign it because his signature would have certified that it met the requirements of the law.
State law allows public bodies to operate using 50 percent of its prior year’s budget, if a new budget isn’t adopted by Sept. 15.
The board met on Sept. 15 and adopted a version of the budget that included cuts and other changes recommended by a majority of its members, rejecting an alternative budget proposal Cooper had made days before, on Sept. 11.
State law requires that a school district’s budget be prepared by the superintendent. It also outlines that an advertisement and public hearing process prior to adoption of a budget.
Conque heard two days of testimony and attorneys’ arguments last week about the board’s budget process. A central issue was whether the board only amended a budget created by Cooper or if the changes board members made were significant enough to constitute their own version of the budget.
Cooper has instructed chief financial officer Billy Guidry to continue operations at 50 percent of the 2013-14 budget, which has stalled cuts approved in the version of the budget that was adopted by the School Board on Sept. 15. The 50 percent provision is only applicable until a budget is adopted.
A majority on the board has held firm that it believes the budget process it followed meets the requirements of state law.
The board’s attorneys, who have attended budget meetings and hearings, have not advised otherwise.
Cooper hasn’t brought another budget proposal to the board to consider despite his objections to the board adoption process. He has said he thinks it would be futile to offer the board another spending plan.
“All they have to do is instruct me to do it,” he said. “I’m certain that it would not be what they wanted and we’d be at the same place.”
He said the next steps related to the budget will depend upon Conque’s ruling.
Conque also will decide on Wednesday whether to disqualify three board members — Mark Babineaux, Hunter Beasley and Tehmi Chassion — from voting in Cooper’s upcoming administrative hearing.
During the Nov. 5 administrative hearing, the board will consider five charges against Cooper stemming from an investigative report of complaints against his management decisions. Cooper could face disciplinary action or even termination.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.