Pat Cooper

Pat Cooper, former Lafayette Parish School Board superintendent, on September 22, 2015.

The president of Louisiana's top school board accused the interim superintendent of the Special School District of running the schools through fear and said it would be a mistake if he gets the job permanently.

Gary Jones, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, aimed his criticism at Pat Cooper, interim superintendent of the district, which includes three schools. They are the Louisiana School for the Deaf and the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, both in Baton Rouge, and the Louisiana Special Education Center in Alexandria.

Cooper, whose interim post expires on June 8, said last week he plans to apply for the post.

He has held the job for the past eight months.

"Personally, I think it is bad practice to have someone serve as an interim for a position he plans to apply for," said Jones, who lives near Alexandria.

"That is especially true when there is so much controversy in the short time he has been there," he added.

Jones said, "You have to be able to provide purpose, direction and motivation. And fear is a short term motivator. The leadership style I have seen from him (Cooper) so far is fear."

The BESE president was even more pointed in an email to Cooper cc'd to BESE members, saying that if Cooper's aim was to provide short-term stability the mission was a "failure."

Cooper, former superintendent of the Lafayette Parish School District, said in an interview he is trying to implement improvements sought by BESE, parents and experts. He said that, rather than relying on fear, he has run a "good professional operation."

"You have to be for kids or you have to be for the system," Cooper said. "And you can't find an in between."

The controversy could become an issue in the 2019 legislative session, which begins April 8.

Cooper, who is paid $150,000 per year, was named by state Superintendent of Education John White, who will also have the final call on who gets the job permanently.

Jones made his comments one day after Leslie Bello, former director of the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, told BESE she was unfairly forced by Cooper to resign after nine years at the school.

Christopher Patterson, former assistant principal of the Louisiana School for the Deaf, said in an interview he was drummed out of his $75,000 per year job in November after three turbulent months.

Patterson said Special School District officials micromanaged the school, employees were afraid to report missteps and even his departure was shrouded in mystery.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Special Education Center, which houses students and adults with orthopedic and developmental problems, is the subject of a State Police investigation after what officials called a "child on child" incident – alleged sexual battery.

Four leaders of the center are on paid suspensions pending the outcome of the probe, and the results have been turned over to the Rapides Parish district attorney's office.

Some officials contend the leaders are under fire because of a power struggle with Cooper, and that Cooper escalated the incident into one that has alarmed students, parents and others.

Cooper's allies say he is being targeted for simply trying to implement badly-needed changes.

"When I hear people say they don't like the changes, I am not sure what they are saying," said Robin King, director of the division in the Instructional Materials Center, which is part of the Special School District and converts materials to braille for schools.

"I do not ever hear a specific thing," said King, a nine-year veteran of the office.

Kim Littles, regional coordinator for special school programs, made a similar point.

"Something changes, you get disgruntled people," Littles said. "The majority of people on this campus are working to make the environment better for these kids."

The three schools include 284 students, with 134 at the Louisiana School for the Deaf, 69 at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired and 81 at the Louisiana Special Education Center.

White planned to have a permanent superintendent in place by July 1, 2018.

But the candidate who was offered the job, Jon Harding, now director of the Kansas State School for the Blind, turned down the offer.

Harding declined to discuss the district.

The other finalist for the post, Kristy Flynn, is principal of the Louisiana Special Education Center and one of the four officials on paid suspensions.

White said the state will use an executive firm costing nearly $50,000 to find a permanent superintendent and that Cooper is free to apply.

What put some of the controversy in motion was a report issued in March, 2018 by Education Development Center Inc., a Massachusetts nonprofit that studies school policies and procedures.

It said there were problems with the leadership of the Special School District, that some staff members of LSD lacked needed skills and that instructional decisions were transferred from educators at the schools to district leaders.

In comments to BESE last week, White said Cooper has made gains with the schools, including finding a leader fluent in American Sign Language to direct the Louisiana School for the Deaf.

But White said Cooper has also made missteps, including reaching decisions without enough input.

"I could have done some things better," Cooper said of White's comments. "All those things are fixable."   

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.