In the past few months, the Lafayette Parish School Board has taken four, five and, in the case of its Aug. 21 meeting, nearly seven hours to conduct its business.
During the most-recent marathon meeting, the agenda contained only four items that required board members’ vote, but it took them about four hours to get to those decisions. First, they had to tackle an agenda stacked with 11 requests for information from staff on various issues, some stemming from complaints board members received from teachers.
Some of those requests — like questions about a principal’s appointment of a special education teacher to a special education facilitator position — prompted questions that could have been asked off the board floor, said Superintendent Pat Cooper.
In an effort to improve efficiency during meetings, Cooper has proposed the board create two subcommittees: one focused on personnel and programs and another on finances and facilities.
The subcommittee practice isn’t uncommon in other school districts, Cooper said.
“If you look around, I don’t know if there are other boards that routinely have five- or six-hour board meetings,” Cooper said. “There’s something wrong with our system, and we need to figure it out and do a better job with it.”
In an Aug. 23 email to board members, Cooper pitched the committee idea again, as well as other initiatives to improve communication among himself and board members. Some of his suggestions include a weekly newsletter on school district news and a retreat that would cover aspects of Act 1, the state education law that, among other things, transfers the power of personnel decisions from school boards to superintendents. The law, which is under judicial review, has prompted major disputes between Cooper and the board over personnel decisions. The board’s request to hire a special counsel to investigate some of Cooper’s actions is pending the state Attorney General Office’s approval.
In his email, Cooper also proposed the board take up offers for pro bono mediation services. Cooper would not disclose who made the offer, but said several local professionals have extended their services, and some residents also have offered to pay for professional intervention.
In October, Cooper plans to update the board on the first year of the six-year turnaround plan — 100 Percent In, 100 Percent Out — and another workshop is planned to unveil goals for Year 2.
“We are in the middle of what seems to be a very successful turnaround process,” he told board members in the email. “The only thing I see that can keep us from being the very best school system in Louisiana is ourselves.”
It’s time for the board to get focused on children, not politics, said Ella Arsement, a parent who regularly attends board meetings.
This summer, the board evaluated Cooper, giving him a rating of four on an eight-point scale. Board president Shelton Cobb mused whether the board would rate as well if evaluated by the public. An election — the next board election isn’t until fall of 2014 — isn’t a timely evaluation for the board’s performance, he noted.
Arsement said she’d rate the board as a 2 on the same scale for members’ failure to seek compromise.
“Because all I ever hear is them saying, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t want it.’ I have yet to hear them say, ‘I don’t agree with it and this is why.’ Maybe we should try this: If they’d work together with some compromise, that would be beneficial for all of them. I want all of them to succeed.”
Marsha Sills covers education for The Advocate’s Acadiana bureau. She can be reached at email@example.com.