Cooper refuses directive to move board’s budget forward

School Superintendent Pat Cooper said Friday he won’t move forward with the Lafayette Parish School Board’s version of the budget because it excludes services required by either board policy or state and federal laws.

The board voted 6-3 on Thursday to direct the school system’s staff to advertise — or give public notice — of the dates and times the budget is available for public review and the dates for a public hearing and meeting for final adoption of the budget.

State law requires notice be advertised at least 10 days before the public hearing. The board’s Thursday vote also set a deadline of Aug. 20 for the publishing of the public notice.

Cooper said Friday he won’t follow the board’s directive.

“The budget that those six members of the Lafayette Parish School Board are directing me to advertise is replete with flaws, including unlawful cuts and off-the-cuff decisions that lead to shortages of dollars that are required to do the business of educating our children, taking care of the needs of the disabled, and enhancing our programs for our highest performing students,” Cooper said in a statement issued Friday.

Cooper said he plans to present another balanced budget proposal late next week or early the week after and to ask the board, not for its approval of the new spending plan, but to proceed with advertising. Staff and the board have been approaching the budget process out of order, and the public should have a chance to weigh in on the budget during a public hearing before the board makes changes, Cooper said.

“The superintendent has to prepare the budget,” Cooper said in an interview. “That’s the budget that goes to the public for inspection, and that’s the budget that goes to public hearing. At that point, the board can look at amending it.”

The process Cooper described is not how central office staff and the board have walked through the budget process in previous years, including in 2012 and 2013 — Cooper’s first two years as superintendent.

Typically, the superintendent presents a budget, the board reviews it and possibly makes changes, and the budget is then advertised for public review and a hearing.

This year, the $23.5 million shortfall the board has had to bridge is larger than it has been in the past, prompting much closer scrutiny of the budget and deep cuts that went against the recommendations of Cooper and his staff.

Cooper has made several proposals to address the budget shortfall without the cuts to services and personnel the board made in its version of the budget. The board did not discuss Cooper’s two most recent balanced budget proposals presented at the end of July and on Thursday.

Cooper said after more research and based on guidance from the legal department at the state Legislative Auditor’s Office Friday, he thinks the district has been going about the budget process in improper order.

Rather than the board making changes to the budget before it’s available for public review and a public hearing is held, Cooper said, changes should be made after input is received during the public hearing.

“We put the cart before the horse. The way we did it, the board was conceiving the budget and putting it together,” Cooper said.

Jenifer Schaye, general counsel at the Legislator’s Auditor’s Office, confirmed her staff answered questions Friday from the school system’s finance director about existing laws related to the budget process.

She stressed that no one in her office advised whether the board’s current procedure is correct or wrong.

Schaye said a superintendent has the responsibility of preparing a budget that is subject to public review and a public hearing. State law states that at least one public hearing is held before the budget is adopted.

After the public hearing, if the board makes substantial changes, Schaye said, then the process should start all over again.

“If they change it in such a dramatic way, the AG opinions and the law appear to us to be saying … you’ve got to start all over again with a public hearing, so the public knows what the budget is,” Schaye said. “So, if they have $1 million for salaries, and the school board now changes it and says $2 million in salaries, there should be another public hearing.”

Board input is part of the budget process for a fundamental reason — it’s responsible for ensuring the district operates with a balanced budget.

“The typical process is going to include collaboration among the board and the superintendent with the understanding that the board has the fiduciary responsibility at the end of the day to present a balanced budget,” said Scott Richard, president of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

He added, “It’s typical for the board to make revisions to the budget because of the ebb and flow of different funding streams versus expenditures.”

The procedures school districts follow in preparing and presenting a budget to a full school board and the public vary. Some districts have a finance committee that meets with the superintendent and finance staff to work on budget revisions before the budget document is presented to the full board for advertisement, Richard said.

What makes the Lafayette situation unusual is that not all boards have a major deficit to close. Its budget situation was also compounded by the entry of three new charter schools in the district and about 1,000 Lafayette Parish students enrolled in them, Richard said.

“There’s no way around the board’s involvement, whether the superintendent and the board are getting along or not, when there’s a large deficit,” Richard said.

Cooper’s refusal to proceed with the board’s directive to advertise the budget is unusual and creates other complications, he said.

“It’s a very unique situation in this case in Lafayette that the superintendent — the one employee that the school board is responsible for — is openly defying their directive to move forward,” Richard said.

Efforts to reach School Board President Hunter Beasley on Friday afternoon, after Cooper issued his statement, were not successful. The board’s attorney, Bob Hammonds, also could not be reached for comment Friday.

Hammonds told board members on Thursday that the budget that is advertised may be different from the budget that is ultimately adopted by the board.

At one point in the meeting, he was asked by a board member whether the cuts the board made to the budget violated any state or federal law.

In response, Hammonds said that in the many hours he’s sat in the board’s budget meetings this summer, he’s never once been asked if any of the cuts violated the law.

He added that he’d need to review a list of cuts that staff presented to the board this week to determine any risks of running afoul with state or federal statutes. He told the board Thursday that advertising the budget is a separate issue from any potential law violations and the board was not voting on Thursday to expend any funds.

Cooper repeated his concerns on Friday that advertising and presenting a budget that contained the cuts was misleading to the public.

“Why would I as superintendent advertise a budget that I know is unlawful? How is the public to be expected to review a false budget?” Cooper asked in his written statement.

By law, the board must approve a budget by Sept. 15 and present it to the state superintendent by Sept. 30.

Schaye said if the board doesn’t meet that deadline, then by law, it is only allowed to proceed in the current fiscal year with 50 percent of last year’s budget until it adopts a final spending plan.

The board’s delayed budget process has been challenged in federal court by Cajundome director Greg Davis, who filed a lawsuit asking the court to intervene in the budget issue, as well as the board’s pending investigation of Cooper.

Davis filed the lawsuit last week and on Monday filed a preliminary injunction for the court to intervene more quickly in the budget situation. No hearing dates have been set in the matter.