Cooper gains support on hiring issue

Advocate staff photo By BRAD BOWIE -- Superintendent Pat Cooper makes his opening remarks at Wednesday night's meeting of the Lafayette Parish School Board. Cooper is being criticized for his decision to hire someone who lacks a high school diploma, a requirement for the job.
Advocate staff photo By BRAD BOWIE -- Superintendent Pat Cooper makes his opening remarks at Wednesday night's meeting of the Lafayette Parish School Board. Cooper is being criticized for his decision to hire someone who lacks a high school diploma, a requirement for the job.

Before a scheduled vote Wednesday by the Lafayette Parish School Board to reprimand Superintendent Pat Cooper over an employee’s hiring, about 30 people spoke in support of Cooper or his proposed district turnaround plan with many calling for the board to “let him do his job.”

Board member Greg Awbrey suggested that Cooper be reprimanded for the hiring and continual employment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent over facilities, maintenance, grounds and transportation, because Welch doesn’t have a high school diploma, a requirement for the job.

As of 9:30 p.m., the board had not voted on the issue. Comments from the public took up more than 90 minutes of the meeting.

Three people also questioned aspects of the proposed turnaround plan or a lack of vocal teacher support of the plan at the meeting.

Nick Pugh, who spoke on behalf of the Pugh Family Foundation, offered board members a palatable solution: “It’s crawfish season. My idea is go eat some crawfish, drink some beers and let’s keep this foolishness out of the paper.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Cooper called the proposed reprimand “bogus” and said it was “politically motivated” and unsubstantiated by a “toxic few” board members. He maintained that school system policy was not broken when Welch was hired in March 2012 and that an existing policy allows employees who do not fit all parts of a job description to be hired.

The issue of Welch’s educational level was first publicly questioned by board member Tehmi Chassion during the board’s meeting on Jan. 9. Since then, the job and employee’s lack of education has been a topic of discussion during board meetings.

At the board’s last meeting on March 20, the board voted 5-4 to eliminate funding for the special assistant position — a move Cooper said Wednesday was “tantamount to firing the person, albeit in a back-door fashion.”

The board does not have the authority to fire employees, so Welch remains on the payroll, Cooper said.

The board is awaiting an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office concerning its authority over decisions related to Welch’s hiring with some board members saying it was a violation of policy.

On Wednesday, Cooper said the policy states that only 8 percent of the selection criteria for technical, noncertificated positions is based on degree. He said the board has previously hired people who did not fit the educational requirements for their jobs at the time of their hiring.

In the past, Cooper said, the board has approved the hiring of at least 34 employees who did not have the educational requirement for the position at the time of their hire.

“There are currently employees working here who have no high school diploma or no GED, so I think the precedent is clear,” Cooper said.

Some people in the audience spoke Wednesday in support of Welch.

“He is producing results,” said United Way of Acadiana President Margaret Trahan, in support of Welch. “He is and was Dr. Cooper’s choice and we ask you to respect that. Empower your superintendent rather than reprimand him.”

Cooper said he believes some board members have pushed the issue because he and Welch “have prevented status quo people from doing business as usual.”

“You want to reprimand me for hiring a gentleman for $76,000 who replaced two people in charge of the same areas who were collectively making $205,000 not doing the job?” Cooper asked.

Patti Carter asked the public to respect board members’ experience.

“Being the 35th time does not make it right,” she said in reference to the 34 employees previously hired who did not fulfill all parts of a job description.

“We’re trying to teach our children to follow rules and if they see adults, especially the adult in charge of all the children, not following the rules, that does not set a good example,” Carter said.

Many audience members who spoke directed comments to board members, asking them to work together and let Cooper do his job.

“He cannot do his job if you get in his way,” Marine Corps veteran Bob Lowe said. “On behalf of veterans, I’m saying get out of his way and let him do his job.”

Lafayette NAACP Chapter President Marja Broussard questioned, “If this plan is so great, why aren’t teachers supporting it?”

One Carencro Middle School teacher later spoke in support of both the plan and Cooper.

One parent, Olivia Regard, asked Awbrey to remove his proposed letter of reprimand and then encouraged board members to vote against it, if Awbrey opted to pursue the issue.

“If you don’t, in two years when the election comes up, I implore all the voters in Lafayette Parish to vote to make this system (one) we all can be proud of and that my children can thrive in,” Regard said.