Q&A with Pat Cooper, Lafayette Parish schools chief

POSITION: Lafayette Parish schools

superintendent.

AGE: 63.

Pat Cooper instituted major changes in his first year as leader of Lafayette Parish schools. Guiding those changes is a six-year district turnaround plan, “100 Percent In, 100 Percent Out,” that outlines a phased approach to making Lafayette an A-rated school district. Cooper sat down with The Advocate to discuss successes and challenges in the first year and the second phase of the district’s turnaround plan.

How would you describe your first year as superintendent?

It’s almost a tale of two worlds. One, it’s been rough and tumble. You don’t come in with a 5-4 vote and have things run smoothly. I’ve been disappointed at times because I felt that people weren’t listening to the substance of what we were trying to do. They were only looking at the fact that I didn’t have much of a majority coming in and I felt at times that I was battling against the good ol’ boy network. But the good has far outweighed the bad. I think the people in Lafayette, in general, have embraced me personally and the agenda that we’re trying to accomplish and that’s really important.

What are some of the goals you feel you’ve accomplished in the first year?

The first goal was for me to understand the system, which has taken awhile. One, because it’s a larger system; and two, because people have different ways of doing things and the traditions and the way of doing business sometimes was a little foreign to me. Second, was to create a vision for people, for educators, kids, parents, and for school board members. Like it or don’t like it, we now have a vision called “100 Percent In, 100 Percent Out.” I think that’s a huge accomplishment, bringing all those — over 400 people — to work on the task forces. The third piece, I think is really big, is we put together a very credible staff at the office and as principal positions come up. I feel that we’ve placed really great people in those positions. I think by doing that and doing business professionally and very openly we’ve regained the trust of the community.

What are your goals for the upcoming year?

It’s going to be crucial that we get School Board support for this second year of the turnaround plan. If we don’t get the second year funded, then everything we did in the first year gets short-changed. I’m going to have to convince the public to put some additional public funds, a tax, if you will, into the school system. There’s no way to progress any further with the funding we have.

What’s critical in the second year of the plan?

We made the decision to try to keep all the kids in school. Well, to do that, it’s going to take more personnel. We think there’s an additional two to three positions that will be needed at every school to either lower student-teacher ratios or to provide alternative programs for those overage students. The second piece is we’ve got to start looking at technology. In two years, the state’s going to administer the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test through technology and we couldn’t take the test today. We also want to start the process of bolstering our Pre-K program and serving more four-year-olds.

This time last year, you said one of the challenges you faced as a new superintendent was building unity among School Board members. Do you feel you’ve made progress?

I think the board knows me and I know them a lot better, so that’s a plus. And I do believe that all the school board members want the right things to happen, but there may be times when they don’t agree on the way that I might go about getting them done. I know there’s still some disagreement. I know that some board members really are thinking we want a great school district but we don’t want to raise any taxes and I just have to say that’s impossible. You can’t get better without some additional dollars, so there’s some philosophical differences there. Overall, I think our relationships are better just because we’ve gotten to know one another.

Advocate staff writer

Marsha Sills