Cooper spills the beans on the SB’s investigation against him

Superintendent Pat Cooper ended the yearlong silence shrouding the cause of the School Board’s investigation into his leadership, disclosing seven management decisions an attorney hired by the board questioned him about earlier Wednesday.

None of the issues was surprising, Cooper told the board Wednesday. He then listed the items the attorney discussed with him:

The hiring and continued employment of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent who didn’t have the education required for the job. The board reprimanded Cooper for insubordination in April 2013 for continuing to employ Welch after it removed funding for the position. Cooper has said state law gives him authority over personnel decisions.

Submitting for reimbursement legal bills from attorney Lane Roy, whom Cooper hired last spring when the board prepared to reprimand him. Cooper said Wednesday that his contract states the board is responsible for his legal fees if it brings charges against him.

Hiring an assistant director and director of transportation who did not have commercial driver’s licenses.

Closing the Lafayette Charter High program. Cooper said the board was informed of the decision last year and the functions of the school continue at N.P. Moss Preparatory School.

Hiring some principals last year at different pay than other principals.

Entering into a memorandum of understanding for less than $10,000 with the state Department of Education to review charter applications last year. Cooper said the MOU amount didn’t meet the threshold to require board approval.

Using public funds to hire a public relations firm for a property tax renewal. Cooper said he hired a firm for publicity work related to the renewal, but denied it was improper.

A majority of the board voted in July 2013 to hire an attorney to investigate Cooper, though the investigation didn’t get underway until sometime in May. The investigating attorney, Dennis Blunt, has a rough draft of his investigation that he’s shared with board president Hunter Beasley. Earlier this week, the board had called a special meeting for Blunt to deliver his report to the board, but the meeting was canceled Tuesday morning after Cooper told the board he wouldn’t be able to attend. He also questioned the meeting because Blunt had not attempted to contact him for an interview until Monday. Cooper said Blunt wanted to meet with him on Tuesday — hours ahead of the planned meeting.

Beasley said he published the meeting notice because he assumed Cooper and Blunt would have met prior to the meeting.

Cooper asked the board to explain its reasons for calling the special meeting when Blunt had not interviewed him yet and they knew he wasn’t available to attend the meeting. He placed his request on the board’s meeting agenda for Wednesday — which led to his disclosure of the causes of the investigation.

Cooper questioned how Beasley could have a report if the attorney had not yet interviewed the subject of his investigation. Cooper added that the attorney he met with Wednesday told him there was no report.

He also questioned why Beasley was the only recipient of the report when the board agreed that if one board member received information, it would be shared with all board members.

Beasley said Blunt merely shared a rough draft of his work, which the board president said would be improper to share because it was incomplete and could be misleading. Beasley said he’d share it with the full board if the board voted to release it.

Board member Tommy Angelle said he agreed with Cooper that information should be shared with all board members and then referenced Welch’s hiring. The hiring became an issue in early 2013 after it was learned that Cooper had told some board members prior to Welch’s hiring in March 2012 that the man did not have the required education for the job. Welch and Cooper previously worked together when Cooper was the superintendent in McComb, Mississippi.

“That didn’t happen a couple of years ago when Dr. Cooper discovered that his buddy from Mississippi didn’t have the qualifications for the job (description) that he wrote,” Angelle said. “He only told his good ol’ boy network that he wasn’t qualified for the job.”

Board member Rae Trahan asked board attorney Bob Hammonds for clarification about the investigatory process, specific to whether the investigating attorney’s role is to interview Cooper or if that’s something the board should do after it receives the report.

In order for a superintendent to be fired, formal charges must be brought against him, and one method to identify charges is to hire an attorney to conduct an investigation, Hammonds said. It’s typical for the investigator to interview the person being investigated, he said. The investigator’s role is not to determine whether the superintendent is guilty, but whether there’s credible evidence to bring charges, Hammonds said.

Once the board receives Blunt’s report, it will need to decide whether to bring formal charges against the superintendent, Hammonds said.

Board member Shelton Cobb questioned how the attorney can conduct an investigation if he doesn’t know which alleged charges to investigate.

“It’s kind of kangaroo court to decide after the investigation what the charges are going to be,” Cobb said. “Even a criminal has a right to his accuser. This is a sheepish way to go about it.”

Beasley said it’s unclear when the investigative report will be complete. The board could meet to discuss Blunt’s findings sometime next week, he said.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.