Cooper asks School Board to work with him, attorneys

Lafayette Parish Superintendent Pat Cooper asked School Board members Friday to consider letting his attorney and a board attorney help them work out governance and operations questions rather than hiring special counsel to investigate “complaints” about him.

On Wednesday, the nine-member board voted 5-4 to hire a Gretna law firm to investigate “complaints” and “major concerns” about Cooper at the urging of board member Rae Trahan. The board also gave Cooper, who started working in January 2012, a “good” rating on his first evaluation.

Cooper, in an email, proposed that his attorney, Lane Roy, and Ken Sills, an attorney with the firm hired as the board’s special counsel for personnel matters, help guide discussion on what “the new world of public education governance and operation looks like.

“They would outline for us, to incorporate into board policy, the revised duties and responsibilities and authority of the Superintendent as well as Board so we can move on common ground into the future,” Cooper wrote.

Cooper suggested that the board’s executive committee consider his recommendation and make a report to the full board. That could happen as soon as the board’s next meeting on Aug. 7, Cooper said in a phone interview Friday.

In the email, Cooper also questioned whether the board’s resolution holds up to the requirements set in Louisiana law for hiring special counsel. By law, most public bodies’ resolutions for special counsel face approval by the state Attorney General’s office.

The law states that a public body’s request for special counsel won’t be approved “unless a real necessity exists, made to appear by a resolution thereof stating fully the reasons for the action and the compensation to be paid.”

Cooper said the board has an assistant district attorney and a “well-paid private law firm, Hammond and Sills, who can both handle any of these issues.” The resolution is vague and lacks information on what the special counsel will investigate — only “complaints” related to his job performance, he said.

Board President Shelton Cobb said Friday that the executive committee meets at the board’s request, so any committee meeting likely wouldn’t happen until after Aug. 7.

Cobb said Friday he was contacted by the Gretna law firm, Grant and Barrow, that would investigate Cooper, but didn’t have any information for them. He said the committee may also need to more fully discuss the resolution, should the board decide to proceed.

“We don’t understand what these people are going to be doing, how much it’s going to cost and how long it’s going to take,” Cobb said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Trahan said she proposed the resolution to hire special counsel to resolve issues that frequently take up time on the board floor. Neither she nor the resolution outlined “complaints” that Grant and Barrow would investigate.

Trahan could not be reached for comment Friday.

In an interview prior to Wednesday’s meeting, Trahan told The Advocate that her resolution refers to two issues related to board and superintendent authority over personnel. During the meeting, she said her intention was not to “impugn” Cooper and it was an effort to help the board move forward.

Trahan and board members Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion voted to hire special counsel. Cobb, Hunter Beasley, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham voted against the move.

Of those supporting the resolution, only Babineaux and Angelle could be reached for comment Friday.

Babineaux said he had not read Cooper’s email and that the proposal was “something to consider.” He said he supported hiring a “third eye” to look at the ongoing issues because “sometimes an independent review is helpful.”

A state law that took effect last year, called Act 1, drastically changed several aspects of education law related to job protection and pay for teachers and board and superintendent authority. The law, which is under judicial review, gave authority over personnel decisions to superintendents and took it away from boards.

Cooper has said Act 1 justifies both personnel issues being debated.

The first is related to the 2012 hiring of Thad Welch as a special assistant to the superintendent for maintenance, grounds, transportation and facilities. He does not have a high school diploma but is working on earning a GED.

In April, the board voted to formally reprimand Cooper for violating board policy by hiring someone without a diploma. The board also has stripped the funding for the position. Cooper has said he has no cause to fire Welch and Act 1 gives him the authority.

The second issue is a more recent one and it is being pushed by Angelle after he learned that some principals were being paid on a 244-day schedule, instead of the number of days he said are set in board policy.

Cooper has said the new state law allows him to adjust personnel within the means of the budget set by the board. At least five principals were paid on the 244-day schedule in the past school year in an effort to attract qualified leaders to schools with either discipline or performance issues, he has said.

Angelle said he does not think Act 1 allows Cooper to “usurp board policy.

“I respect him and I love him, but therein is where the disagreement is,” Angelle said. “We say that our policy is this. He’s saying I don’t have to follow your policy because of Act. 1. I say nowhere in Act 1 does it absolve the superintendent from following board policy. That’s the crux of the disagreement.”

Angelle said he welcomes a policy discussion, but after receiving an email from board attorney James Simon on Friday, he questioned Roy’s involvement.

Angelle said Simon’s email to the board stated that Roy represented former Superintendent James Easton, whose contract was bought out in 2007.