Inside Report: Dissension taxes Lafayette school board

By Marsha Sills

Acadiana bureau

Could a crawfish boil help repair the rift between Lafayette Parish School Superintendent Pat Cooper and the School Board members who reprimanded him over a hiring decision?

That’s what Lafayette philanthropist and education advocate Nick Pugh jokingly suggested at the board’s April 3 meeting.

School superintendents generally have a short shelf life.

Cooper, who started working as superintendent of the Lafayette school system in January 2012, has a four-year contract with the School Board.

At the meeting, Pugh and about 30 others issued accolades and appeals for Cooper and the district turnaround plan created under his leadership. But those appeals didn’t deter six of the nine board members from reprimanding Cooper for allegedly breaking board policy for hiring as a special assistant someone who does not have a high school diploma. The board voted March 20 to remove the funding for the position, but the special assistant, Thad Welch, remains employed.

Welch, who is paid $102,313 in salary and benefits, advises Cooper on maintenance, grounds upkeep and some transportation issues.

After the reprimand, Cooper and board members publicly vowed to move forward and focus on students and the turnaround plan.

But the special assistant issue resurfaced at the board’s May 1 meeting in a budget revision proposing to move the $102,313 budgeted for the position into a contingency account as a one-time expense. The budget revision failed on a 4-4 vote; however, the agenda item included other proposed budget revisions, so it will likely go before the board again.

The special assistant issue is just one example of the strained relationship between board members and central office administration. Another example is the discussion at the May 1 meeting over board member Greg Awbrey’s proposal to survey teachers on their views of discipline issues.

Cooper said Awbrey’s intentions were good, but the proposed survey was “leading and negative, especially toward our principals.” Cooper said Awbrey has shown a “bias against the current administration” and noted the survey process did not include controls against tampering, such as repeat responses.

Awbrey said he asked teachers to return the responses to his home address or his personal email to provide some protection to those teachers who may fear retaliation. In response, Cooper accused Awbrey of “fear mongering.”

The conduct of the board that night surprised recent Lafayette High graduate Brandon Comeaux, who as a student spoke out against a proposed restriction, now approved, on student cell phone use on campuses.

“It’s shocking to see how everyone is bickering. … Nobody wants to communicate with each other in a beneficial way,” Comeaux said during the meeting.

The board and school system face larger challenges than the apparent breakdown in diplomacy. On May 14, the board starts its general fund budgeting process with a $12 million shortfall forcing tough choices on how to bridge the funding gap.

“I just hope that we can chart a new path, a new course so to speak and get a lot of this stuff behind us,” board member Hunter Beasley said at the May 1 meeting. “It’s really putting a drag on what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The board will navigate its way out of the quagmire, president Shelton Cobb assured the public and district employees who sat through the more than five-hour board meeting.

“We are going to find a solution,” Cobb said. “After night falls, comes the day.”

Staff writer Marsha Sills covers the Lafayette Parish School System for The Advocate’s Acadiana bureau. She can be reached at msills@theadvocate.com.