Lafayette board expected to take up Cooper charges quickly

The Lafayette Parish School Board could meet as early as Wednesday to consider the formal charges against Superintendent Pat Cooper, board President Hunter Beasley said Friday.

The board met in a special meeting Thursday and asked its special counsel, Dennis Blunt, to write up formal charges against Cooper based on the findings presented in the attorney’s investigative report of Cooper.

If the board plans to terminate Cooper’s contract, it must notify him of the charges in writing and hold a hearing. Termination requires a two-thirds vote — or at least six votes — from the nine-member board.

Blunt’s report to the board focused on 10 issues revolving around certain management decisions Cooper made over the past two years. Blunt said he found that Cooper violated board policies, state laws and even his own contract in making some of the decisions.

State law allows school boards to terminate a superintendent’s contract early for a number of reasons: incompetency, unworthiness or inefficiency; failure to fulfill the terms and performance of the contract; or failure to comply with board policy.

Based on Blunt’s findings, it appears that the charges could be related to Cooper’s handling of payment of personnel — a special assistant to the superintendent and some principals — without board approval.

In his presentation to the board Thursday, Blunt said Cooper’s conduct was “unworthy” and “inefficient,” particularly related to his deviations from law and policies related to budget compliance, personnel actions and contracting.

Cooper denied Blunt’s assertions and said he believes the issues raised by Blunt center on a disagreement over interpretations of a state law known as Act 1 that made several changes to state education policies.

On Friday, Cooper said the matter is in the hands of attorneys and he plans to focus on his job.

“I’m relieved that we got the report and there was nothing on there that was a bombshell,” he said. “We think we can handle it all.”

While Beasley talked about a calling a special board meeting to consider charges as early as Wednesday, Cooper said he thinks it could take three or four months for the process to play out and a termination hearing to be held.

School board elections are Nov. 4, and three of the six board members who voted in support of Blunt preparing formal charges to bring against Cooper are not seeking re-election.

A federal lawsuit filed earlier this month that challenged the board’s handling of its budget and the investigation of Cooper could also create delays.

No hearings have been set yet in the lawsuit filed by Cajundome director and education advocate Greg Davis. The suit asks the court to disqualify board members Mark Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion from any future votes related to Cooper’s termination based on their bias against the superintendent.

Meanwhile, Cooper said he doesn’t want the pending charges that could lead to a termination hearing to thwart progress being made in the district.

The board holds its regular meeting on Wednesday and will meet again Sept. 11 for a public hearing and a meeting on adopting a budget. Cooper and a majority of the board members have sharply disagreed on the handling of the budget.

The board has proposed spending cuts to bridge a $23.5 million shortfall, rather than accepting more than a dozen balanced budget proposals from Cooper that aim to address the shortfall without resorting to some of those cuts.

Cooper refused to advertise the board’s version of the budget for public inspection and present it to the public for a public hearing before its final adoption.

Blunt, in his report, told the board that Cooper was right to wait to advertise the budget. Cooper presented his version of a balanced budget that restored about $9 million of the board’s cuts and its now available for public inspection at the School Board’s office and online.

The public will have a chance to give its input on the budget at the Sept. 11 hearing, which will be followed by a special meeting at which the board can amend the budget.

Cooper said he’d like to discuss the budget with the board prior to the Sept. 11 meeting to prevent any more roadblocks in approving expenses for the upcoming school year because some materials — such as textbooks and other instructional needs for classrooms — are needed now.

The School Board has repeatedly refused to accept requests from staff to approve nearly $3 million in the expenses.

“Next week, I’m going to offer to do some mediation with the board so we can salvage this school year. We need to get the materials out to our teachers and kids,” Cooper said. “I hope before Sept. 11 that we can come to some agreement to keep things in tact this year, so our principals and teachers aren’t wondering: ‘Are we going to keep this?’ or ‘Are we going to lose that?’ ”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.