Forums to explore law debated by Cooper, board

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a December board meeting. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a December board meeting.

Act 1 issue: impact on workers

A law enacted in July 2012 that has been the crux of much debate between the Lafayette Parish School Board and School Superintendent Pat Cooper will be the topic of two upcoming forums.

Cooper has scheduled a Jan. 11 workshop for school employees on the law, known as Act 1, to explore how it changes board governance and staff management. The League of Women Voters of Lafayette will hold its public forum on the law on Jan. 14, featuring a panel discussion on the law and its effect on school boards and school employees.

Act 1 not only made several changes in teacher evaluation and compensation, but also transferred final personnel decisions from school boards to superintendents. Aspects of the law have been challenged in court and are still under judicial review.

Differences of opinions between Cooper and some School Board members over interpretations have further complicated relations between the superintendent and the board, particularly over the March 2012 hiring of Thad Welch, who at the time did not meet the educational requirements for the new position of special assistant to the superintendent for facilities, maintenance, grounds and transportation.

The board didn’t bring up the issue of Welch’s hiring until 2013 — when the law was in effect. The board eliminated the line-item funding for the position in the budget last year; however, Cooper has retained Welch, citing the authority Act 1 gives him to make personnel decisions. The tug of war led the board to formally reprimand Cooper, and in July, the board voted to hire special counsel to investigate the superintendent, though its request has not yet been approved by the Attorney General’s Office. The issue was further complicated in October, when the board’s attorney, Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton, told the Attorney General’s Office there were no grounds for any investigation.

After that opinion, the board, in November, voted to release Hamilton and the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel.

Months ago, Cooper requested he and the board meet to discuss the implications of Act 1. After the board failed to offer feedback on his request, he placed his recommendation for a workshop on the new law on the board’s Dec. 4 meeting agenda. He had asked the board to make a decision on the workshop that evening, but his request to accelerate a decision was rejected.

The board was to give a final vote on the recommended workshop at its Dec. 18 meeting, but Cooper pulled the item from the agenda, citing a push from his staff to hold the training regardless of board support. He extended an invitation to the workshop to the board.

The school system Act 1 workshop is planned from 8 a.m. to noon Jan. 11 at David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy. University of Louisiana at Lafayette education professor Nathan Roberts will lead the workshop. Roberts, a former assistant district attorney and School Board attorney, directs the university’s educational leadership and foundations program and teaches school law to aspiring superintendents and principals.

Roberts also will join a panel discussion on Act 1 at 6 p.m. Jan. 14 organized by the League of Women Voters at the AOC Community Media Center, 101 Jefferson St.

Other panelists for the League forum include Patrice Pujol, president of the Louisiana Superintendents Association and superintendent of Ascension Parish Schools; Scott Richard, president of the Louisiana School Boards Association; and Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.

Panelists will discuss the impact of the new law on board and superintendent relations, and on teacher evaluations and compensation. They’ll also address questions submitted by two parent groups, Parents Empowered and Power of Public Education Lafayette, and a community coalition of groups known as the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council, said Kathleen Schott, a League of Women Voters member and co-organizer of Power of Public Education Lafayette.

Meanwhile, the School Board agreed Dec. 18 to Cooper’s request to meet with him to try to improve their relations. A date for that meeting has not yet been released.