Lafayette board, Superintendent Cooper to meet on differences

Workshop to focus on tense relations

“How can we make changes in our community if you won’t even speak to each other?” Ella arsement, parent

LAFAYETTE — The School Board voted 5-4 on Wednesday to hold a “professional relationships” workshop with Superintendent Pat Cooper in an effort to resolve issues between Cooper and the board.

The vote came after one member questioned Cooper in a courtroom-style manner and another suggested that a review of school board member’s absences was politically motivated.

Board member Mark Allen Babineaux said the proposed mediation session would be a waste of his time. But fellow board member Kermit Bouillion member questioned what bad could come out of meeting together.

“I’m not saying that we’re all going to be kissing and hugging at this mediation but answer this: ‘Will it hurt?’” Bouillion asked

Board members Bouillion, Greg Awbrey, Mark Cockerham, Shelton Cobb and Hunter Beasley voted in support of the mediation, which was renamed as a “professional relationships” workshop after Babineaux rejection of the idea of calling it a mediation session.

Babineaux and board members Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted against the professional relationships workshop.

Babineaux criticized Cooper for appealing to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in October to approve two charter school applications the board had previously rejected.

Babineaux, an attorney, said mediation is for parties who are on equal authoritative status who can work to solve an issue.

“What we have here is a governmental body on one side and an employee on the other,” said Babineaux. “I don’t think we’re on equal authoritative status and I think it’s inappropriate.”

Parent Ella Arsement asked the board to consider working out their differences.

“How can we make changes in our community if you won’t even speak to each other?” Arsement asked before the board voted.

Earlier in the meeting, Babineaux requested an update on the board’s resolution to hire special counsel to investigate complaints against Cooper.

The board approved the resolution in July and was awaiting approval by the Attorney General’s Office. However, board attorney Roger Hamilton sent a letter to the Attorney General on Oct. 23 stating he found no cause for an investigation.

Board members said Hamilton, an assistant district attorney assigned to the board by DA Mike Harson, acted against the board’s wishes and they voted last month to relieve the DA’s Office as its general counsel.

Durng the meeting, Babineaux accused Cooper of defacing a public document because Cooper wrote a note on the resolution under his signature that he signed it under protest. Cooper wrote that the resolution didn’t meet the legal requirements to hire special counsel reasons for investigation and that the board also has an assistant district attorney and a firm that works as special counsel.

“What authority and privilege do you have to deface public documents?” Babineaux asked Cooper.

Cooper said that he thought the board was breaking the law and “if I didn’t let the attorney general know that I would be breaking my contract.”

“Do you have a juris doctor?” Babineaux asked.

“No, I do not, but I can certainly read,” Cooper said.

“Defacing a public document is not legal from I understand,” Babineaux said.

Cooper filed a complaint against Babineaux with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board last month alleging Babineaux disclosed information revealed in an executive session the board held about Cooper on Oct. 16.

In a letter released to the media Wednesday, board president Shelton Cobb criticized the board’s behavior in the past few months and said the system is in danger of backsliding if the board continues to “violate our own rules, act unprofessionally and engage in backdoor dealing and infighting.”

Some board debate has been centered a state law that took effect in July 2012 that changed evaluation and compensation procedures for teachers and shifted authority over personnel decisions from school boards to superintendents.

A workshop on the state law and school governance issues is scheduled for 8 a.m. Jan. 11 at Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy.

Cooper had proposed the governance workshop for board members and central office staff. The governance workshop was discussed at the board’s Dec. 4 meeting and set for board action at Wednesday’s meeting, but Cooper pulled it from the agenda.

“Staff asked me to go ahead and have it whether the board wanted it or not and we’ll invite the board to come,” Cooper said prior to Wednesday’s board meeting. “We’ll have principals, assistant principals and staff there.”

Beasley said he was unable to attend the workshop and requested another session.

Also on Wednesday, Angelle alleged political motives for the timing of a review of board member meeting absences in 2012, since board elections are next year. The review included examining whether board members had ever previously been fined for excessive absences.

The review showed that some board members owed as much as $1,400 for excessive absences and gave board members until February to turn in excuses.

The board’s auditor reviewed absences because a complaint was made to the legislator auditor’s office, said chief financial officer Billy Guidry.

The full audit report will be presented to the board in the spring, but the report on absences was disclosed now so board members could have time to submit excuses and set up any payment plans, if necessary, Guidry said.