Cooper, School Board spar over attorney’s fees

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a school board meeting Wednesday in Lafayette.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a school board meeting Wednesday in Lafayette.

$5,100 bill for legal fees questioned

The Lafayette Parish School Board is not responsible for the $5,100 bill submitted by Superintendent Pat Cooper relative to his attorney’s research into allegations that he violated board policy, the board’s attorney said Wednesday.

“We do not think that the bill was owed,” said Bob Hammonds, the School Board’s attorney.

Board member Tehmi Chassion said the bill was paid even after an opinion from Hammonds’ law firm was submitted to Cooper.

“Doesn’t that just floor you?” Chassion said after learning from Billy Guidry, the district’s chief financial officer, that the bill was paid.

“I’m to pay the bill for a lawyer you’re going to use to sue me? Sorry,” Chassion said.

The bill from Preis & Roy is for about 27 hours of work by two attorneys between April 3 and June 10.

Chassion said Cooper did not bring a resolution to the board requesting special counsel and his attorney’s hourly rate of $250, exceeds the acceptable maximum rate of $175 set by the Attorney General’s office.

In April, the board voted to reprimand Cooper, saying he violated board policy in March 2012 by hiring Thad Welch even though he didn’t have the required education to hold a special assistant position.

Cooper defended his decision to hire an attorney based on the terms of his contract, which he said states that he will be reimbursed for attorney fees.

“There is nothing in state law that mandates that the superintendent maintain pre-approval to hire (an) attorney . . . as it is (required) for the board,” Cooper said.

Cooper claimed the board has frequently overstepped its authority, micromanaged system business and breached its contract by not alerting him to issues.

Some board members wait to air their grievances during public meetings, the superintendent said.

“This may very well end up in court, I hope it doesn’t,” Cooper said.

Cooper also said the reprimand letter never made it to his file — an oversight board members later said needed to be remedied.

Board member Greg Awbrey asked Hammonds what kind of recourse the board has in recouping the $5,100. Hammonds said the board could file suit to reclaim the money, but that would cost them legal fees.

At its July 17 meeting, the board voted 7-2 to hire special counsel to “investigate” Cooper and the superintendent has refused to sign the resolution.

Board President Shelton Cobb also has not signed the resolution so it has not been submitted to the Attorney General’s Office for review.

Cobb asked for Hammonds’ opinion on the issue.

“Signature doesn’t signify agreement with the resolution — just that it was passed by a majority of the board,” Hammonds said.

Cooper said he did not sign the resolution because “it’s not truly correct in that it does not follow state law. In Act 1, I am responsible for making sure that Act 1 is followed.”

Hammonds disagreed with Cooper’s reasoning. He said it’s up to the Attorney General’s Office to review and make a decision about whether special counsel is warranted.

The resolution mentions job performance but does not specify the complaints, though the board has debated Cooper’s handling of at least two personnel issues.

Cooper has said Act 1 gives him the authority to handle personnel issues while some board members have said Cooper violated policy.

Nearly four hours into Wednesday’s meeting, the board had spent much of its time on informational reports — items ranging from information requested on job descriptions and other topics — but had not discussed introduction or action items.

A board vote on four proposed Type 1 charter schools to open in the parish between 2014 and 2017 also was planned Wednesday.

Inspire Charter Academy Inc. proposed two K-8 schools to be managed by National Heritage Academies of Michigan. Only one K-8 school, set to open in August 2014, was considered by the board due to a district staff oversight in preparing the agenda. The other school could be considered at a later date.

The second application, from Lafayette Charter Foundation Inc. proposed a total of three schools: the first, a K-8 school to open next August; a second K-8 school to open in 2015 and a high school to open in 2017.