Lafayette board reprimands superintendent

A confrontation with a reporter in a bathroom led Lafayette Parish School Board member Tehmi Chassion to file a report of simple battery with Lafayette police during a Wednesday School Board meeting.

The confrontation came to light during a marathon meeting in which the board voted 6-3 late Wednesday to reprimand Superintendent Pat Cooper for insubordination over the March 2012 hiring and later for continuing to employ an employee who does not have a high school diploma — a requirement of his job.

Prior to the end of the meeting and during the time allotted for board members to make closing comments, the discussion grew heated between board member Chassion and Cooper after Chassion outlined the ways he’s felt pressure from the community to drop the issue. Chassion said he’s had five flat tires in the past two months and received public records requests about his education, certification as a pharmacist and whether his name appears on birth certificates for any other children.

“I take issue with people bullying me,” he said.

Chassion added that during the meeting he was confronted by a man in the bathroom who grabbed his shirt and would not let him leave.

The initial police report stated the “victim claims suspect placed a hand on his chest and grabbed at his shirttail to keep him in the bathroom and answer his questions.”

The suspect and a witness both told the responding police officer that the incident didn’t occur, according to the initial report.

No arrest was made, but the reporter — Patrick Flanagan, of The IND Monthly, wrote about the altercation Thursday on The IND’s website.

Flanagan wrote that he followed Chassion into the bathroom to question him about his arrest in 2001 for using a counterfeit $20 bill at two local businesses. Flanagan wrote he showed Chassion a copy of the arrest affidavit, dated March 15, 2001, which he also posted on the publication’s website.

Chassion confirmed Thursday he was arrested when he was 20 returned to Louisiana for unknowingly using counterfeit money at local businesses. Those businesses and his friends and family still tease him about the incident, he said Thursday.

“I did nothing wrong,” Chassion said. “A bill was passed off to me and I ended up using a bill that looked like it had no problems whatsoever.”

The District Attorney’s Office refused in February 2006 to file charges against Chassion over the counterfeit bills.

Chassion called Flanagan “aggressive” and said the reporter “put his hands on me” and attempted to stop him from leaving the bathroom.

Flanagan wrote his only contact with Chassion was an introductory handshake before he attempted to question him. Flanagan wrote that he recorded the less than 30-second encounter on his iPhone. Flanagan said he asked Chassion three times to comment on the arrest and showed Chassion a copy of the arrest affidavit. According to Flanagan, Chassion declined to comment, saying he had a School Board meeting to attend.

Flanagan and the publication’s managing editor, Walter Pierce, declined to comment Thursday, and referred a reporter’s questions to Flanagan’s story posted online.

The initial report over the confrontation in the bathroom will be sent to the District Attorney’s Office for review.

On Wednesday, the board’s vote on Cooper’s letter of reprimand came shortly before 11:30 p.m. after a meeting that included 90 minutes of comments from community members — the majority business and civic leaders — who spoke in support of Cooper and the district’s turnaround plan.

Many appealed to the board to allow Cooper to manage the district.

Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted in support of the reprimand. Board members Mark Cockerham, Kermit Bouillon and Shelton Cobb voted against it.

At issue was the March 2012 hiring of Thad Welch as a special assistant to the superintendent for facilities, maintenance, grounds and transportation.

The letter of reprimand was placed on the agenda as a potential executive session discussion, but Cooper opted to discuss the matter in public.

Awbrey, who proposed the letter of reprimand, read the letter aloud prior to the board’s vote.

The letter said that Cooper withheld information that Welch did not have a high school diploma prior to the board’s March 7, 2012, vote to approve his hiring.

The information “was critical to the School Board making a validly informed and legal decision,” Awbrey read.

In February, the board voted to reconsider the March 2012 action, “thereby withdrawing its approval of the hiring from the outset,” he continued.

The letter said that Cooper is in violation of state law because it is his responsibility to “ensure that all persons have proper certification, as applicable, and are qualified for the position.” The board policy also requires the superintendent hire qualified employees.

Cooper maintained that he did not violate policy nor state law in hiring Welch.

“Mr. Welch is certainly qualified based on his experience and performance,” Cooper said.

Cooper said Thursday he’s ready to move on.

“We have to get back to talking about children and education,” Cooper said. “They’ve done the reprimand. It’s in the file. ... I’m hoping that everybody’s going to be able to see eye to eye on what we need to do on the turnaround plan.”

On Wednesday, after the reprimand vote and before adjournment, discussion grew heated between Chassion and Cooper. Cooper told Chassion he felt Chassion’s allegations of bullying were directed at him.

“I don’t have time to waste doing that ... and I certainly don’t ask other people to do that,” Cooper said. “I’ve been at this 42 years and I’ve never ever been treated this way. You may feel good about it tonight — but it will catch up with you.”

Chassion asked if Cooper’s remark was a threat.

Cooper said he meant, “whatever comes around goes around.”

On Thursday, Chassion said he wants the board and superintendent to move forward.

“We just want to do the right thing. We can all support a plan to make the schools A-plus schools,” Chassion said. “We gotta be able to trust what the superintendent says and not feel bullied and pressured to do things his way as many teachers and administrators in the system feel.”