Lafayette School Board asks attorney to prepare formal charges against Cooper

The Lafayette Parish School Board asked an attorney Thursday to prepare formal charges against Superintendent Pat Cooper based on the attorney’s findings that Cooper made decisions that broke with board policies, state laws and his own contract.

“During the tenure of Dr. Cooper as superintendent, there has been conduct, in my opinion, unbecoming of a professional instructional leader of the parish,” Baton Rouge attorney Dennis Blunt informed the board Thursday.

Blunt said if Cooper were unwilling to resign, the board should consider the possibility of removing him from office.

“None of this surprises me,” Cooper said, denying Blunt’s findings. “I’m not scared. I’m not even shy about saying this: that the people of Lafayette and the children of Lafayette are worth this fight and this effort.

“While a lot of this may sound bad to the public, I think the public has to understand, this is one firm’s opinion by a board intent on getting rid of me while we were making changes.”

The board, which hired Blunt in May to investigate Cooper, voted 6-3 Thursday to accept the report. Voting “no” were board members Kermit Bouillion, Mark Cockerham and Shelton Cobb. The report details 10 questionable decisions or management practices by Cooper since he became superintendent in January 2012. The board’s vote also directs Blunt to write up formal charges, which are necessary to begin termination proceedings. Following the meeting, Blunt said he could not disclose which issues he believed rose to the level of formal charges.

The issue that likely launched the investigation was the hiring of Thad Welch as a special assistant to the superintendent for facilities, grounds and transportation. The board reprimanded Cooper in July 2013 for continuing to employ Welch, even though it had voted to reconsider its decision to hire Welch and removed funding for the position.

Blunt said Cooper frequently cited Act 1 — a state law enacted in July 2102 that takes some powers related to hiring away from school boards and gives them to superintendents. While Cooper has the final say over some personnel decisions, state law still provides that school boards have the power to appoint positions such as assistant superintendents and supervisors, Blunt said.

The continual payment of Welch also presents violations, and Cooper could be personally liable as the ex officio treasurer of the board, Blunt said.

The attorney suggested the board ask the state legislative auditor to investigate the budgetary issues.

Cooper’s attorney, Lane Roy, said policy violations Blunt cited have not been rewritten to comply with the changes brought about by Act 1. Roy said some board members are more intent on getting rid of Cooper than improving education, and Roy encouraged them to meet with Cooper to discuss their concerns.

“He has no intention of resigning. He’s not a quitter. That’s not his reputation,” Roy said.

Blunt reported on nine other issues:

Ongoing disputes between Cooper and the board over the 2014-15 budget. Blunt said Cooper was right to wait to advertise the proposed budget, though, in the past, Cooper has made budget adjustments without board approval.

Failure to follow budget line items. Blunt said he had various budget concerns related to payment of personnel.

Payment of $5,106.21 to Roy related to representing Cooper against board reprimand last year. Blunt said Cooper’s contract states he must pay his own legal fees unless there is a demand of or actual legal proceedings brought against him.

Payment of some principals at different salaries than other principals. Blunt said the practice was out of line with the adopted budget and violates state law and board policy.

Failure to follow policy regarding charter schools by testifying in support of charter applications before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last year when the board voted to reject the applications. Blunt said Cooper told him he attended the meeting as a private citizen on his own time, though Blunt said there is a question whether Cooper can claim free speech rights when he spoke before BESE.

Maintaining multiple people in the same position during the same time period while some employees were on leave. Blunt said evidence indicates the practice was temporary and may have been allowed under board policy.

Entering a memorandum of understanding of less than $10,000 with the Louisiana Department of Education for the review of charter school applications in 2013 without board approval. Blunt said board policy allows the superintendent to enter contracts for professional services of less than $15,000, but policy also prohibits contracted debt that it is not included in the budget. “While Cooper’s conduct constitutes a technical violation, it is a violation that I have learned that the board elected to ratify,” Blunt said.

Contracting with a public relations firm to advertise a 2012 property tax renewal. Blunt said state law allows public funds to be used for dissemination of factual information related to an election proposition and the district asked for an outside legal opinion on its brochure before distributing it to the public.

“Our review of the brochure indicates that there may arguably have been a violation of the constitutional and statutory prohibition,” Blunt said. “Dr. Cooper, himself, acted diligently and in good faith in regard to the brochure. If there was a violation, it is a violation that cannot be laid at the feet of Cooper or the administration.”

Hiring of director and assistant director of transportation who did not have commercial driver’s licenses. Blunt said the assistant position did not require a CDL and the director had six months to receive CDL. He found no violations.

Cobb said he objected to the board voting to do anything other than accept Blunt’s report Thursday because they had not yet had an opportunity to review the document. Cooper waived his right to hold the meeting in executive session, so Blunt presented a PowerPoint presentation of his findings.

It’s unclear whether the board will receive a copy of the full report. Blunt advised against the release of the full report because it includes information that may be determined as inappropriate as evidence for a termination hearing.

The board’s general counsel, Jon Guice, told the board he will confer with both Blunt and Roy on release of the report.

Guice said the board must provide Cooper written notice of his charges and provide him a notice of at least 20 days before it holds a termination hearing.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.