Police called to stormy school board meeting

Lafayette Parish School Board member Tehmi Chassion summoned police to file a complaint against Superintendent Pat Cooper following a stormy closed-door board discussion Wednesday night over a consultant’s bill.

Chassion told responding police officers that Cooper yelled at him and grabbed his arm when he asked district risk manager Mona Bernard for an email related to the board’s closed-door discussion.

The closed-door discussion concerned a Feb. 3 demand letter from an attorney representing an insurance consulting firm, Tikia Consulting Group, seeking $200,000 for services in assisting the board with its selection of an administrator of its employee health insurance program last year.

The board met for more than 30 minutes in executive session and at one point, raised voices could be heard coming from the board conference room, which is adjacent to the main board room.

Officers arrived after the board’s meeting and also interviewed board members Rae Trahan and Shelton Cobb, board President Hunter Beasley and Cooper, as well as the board’s attorney, Roger Hamilton, who is also an assistant district attorney.

The officers took Chassion’s complaint and interviewed witnesses but made no arrest and took no further action late Wednesday.

Chassion told police officers that after he requested the email, Cooper told Bernard she could pass it along Thursday, so he asked for the document again.

“At this point, the superintendent approaches me from behind and yells into my ear, ‘She’s my employee and you cannot talk to her any way you want,’ ” Chassion said. “He grabs me by my arm and turns me around in the (swivel) chair.”

Cooper denied grabbing Chaisson or yelling at him, but said he touched Chassion’s forearm when addressing Chassion’s repeated requests of Bernard.

“He became irate at one of my staff members and began yelling at her,” Cooper said. “I touched him and said, ‘That’s my employee and if you need anything, you need to go through me.’ ”

Cooper called Chassion’s allegations a “deflection from what the real issue should be ­ ­— which is the way the board handled the insurance (process).”

The board hired Tikia Consulting Group in June to administer requests for proposals and oversee the selection and recommendation process.

The consultant’s hiring was a departure from the board’s past practice of accepting the recommendation of its own employee insurance advisory committee.

After complaints from applicants and current and retired employees, the board voted in October to reject the consultant’s recommendation that it hire a new administrator, ending its 17-year relationship with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana.

Instead, the board decided to allow its employee insurance advisory committee to make a recommendation. The committee met last month and decided to recommend that the board continue with Blue Cross Blue Shield this year rather than issue a new request for proposals. The board is to consider that recommendation at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 19.

Prior to the board’s vote to reject the recommendation, a draft contract to pay Tikia Consulting a flat fee amount of $200,000 was considered, but never approved or signed by the board or superintendent Pat Cooper.

After the draft contract was returned to the consultant, “various rifts developed amongst board members and the administration to the extent the whole process degenerated into a political circus,” the consultant’s attorney, Rodger Wheaton, wrote in the demand letter.

The letter is dated Feb. 3 and the board has 15 days to pay the $200,000 or face litigation, Wheaton wrote.

The board decided Wednesday to discuss the issue at a special meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 13.

“This will all be discussed in an open meeting and we’re not talking about going into an executive session that night,” board member Kermit Bouillion said.

Earlier in the meeting, the board’s discussion over recommendations by three members to hire a Baton Rouge firm as its interim counsel grew heated after Cooper announced he planned to file a formal complaint against the firm.

The board voted in November to dismiss the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel after Hamilton, the assistant district attorney, wrote a letter to the Attorney General’s Office saying there was no evidence to warrant the investigation of Cooper that the board was seeking.

Some board members said Hamilton acted against the board’s wishes.

Board President Hunter Beasley called for order repeatedly during discussion of the recommendation to hire the firm of Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, which has offices in Baton Rouge and Monroe, to serve as the board’s interim counsel.

The firm currently acts as the board’s special counsel on litigation involving personnel issues.

“My plan is to file a disciplinary complaint based on some of their actions,” Cooper told board members.

One point of conflict between some board members and Cooper has been the March 2012 hiring of Thad Welch, a special assistant to the superintendent over facilities, maintenance, transportation and grounds, who at the time of his hiring did not meet the educational requirements for the new position.

The board didn’t bring up the issue until early 2013 ­and voted in April 2013 to reprimand Cooper for allegedly violating board policy. Later, the board approved a special resolution to hire an attorney to investigate Cooper.

“What we know now is our auditor, including the legislative auditor, our DA and board attorney (agree) that the hiring of Thad Welch was properly done,” Cooper told the board Wednesday. “That was one instance where Hammond & Sills was incorrect. That led to the reprimand of the superintendent, which now I’m going to ask is undone.”

At some points during Wednesday’s discussions, former school board member and former state Rep. Rickey Hardy attempted to speak from the audience.

When Beasley, the board’s president, called for order, Hardy responded, “I’m not out of order. You’re out of order.”

“This particular gentleman on multiple occasions … has continued to disrupt our meetings,” Chassion said.

Chassion asked if there was a policy to handle repeated disruptions from the same person during a board meeting.