Lafayette board opposes bills that could change its structure

Bills to change elections, authority

The Lafayette Parish School Board took a stand Wednesday against legislation that proposes changing the board’s election cycle and opens the door for potential changes to the board’s governance.

The board’s opposition to legislation filed by state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, came during a special meeting that had been called to discuss the bills.

During the meeting, board member Mark Allen Babineaux asked that the resolution be amended to also state the board’s opposition to a bill by state Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, that would provide free transportation to charter school students.

The board voted 7-1 in support of the resolution with board members citing concern that the proposals by the legislators didn’t originate at their request.

“If there’s going to be any change at the state level, (it) should start in this room,” board member Greg Awbrey said.

Awbrey, Babineaux, Kermit Bouillion, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted in support of the resolution. Board member Mark Cockerham voted against, while board member Shelton Cobb was absent.

Landry filed three pieces of legislation specific to the Lafayette Parish School Board.

She proposed changing the board’s election cycle to a gubernatorial election year and creating a commission to investigate other types of school board governance structures. Any recommended changes would be put to a vote of the people.

The resolution passed Wednesday also expresses opposition to another bill Landry filed that restricts school boards from interfering with superintendents’ personnel and management decisions. It further prohibits school boards from removing a superintendent if one or more members has interfered with the duties of the superintendent.

Although the legislation — House Bill 1022 — is not specific to Lafayette, Awbrey said it reads like a recap of the past year of School Board-superintendent relations. In the past year, the board has challenged some of Superintendent Pat Cooper’s personnel decisions and eliminated the budget for one employee who Cooper refused to fire.

Cooper has defended his actions citing a state law, known as Act 1, that gives him authority over school system personnel decisions.

Cooper asked board members Wednesday to specify their opposition to HB1022 since they’ve hired him to manage the $400 million enterprise that is the school system.

“It doesn’t change what’s in Act 1,” Cooper said. “It just gives your CEO the ability to be a bit more nimble in running a $400 million business. I’m just trying to figure out which parts the board is against.”

Awbrey said he was concerned the legislation strips the board of its oversight abilities, particularly its oversight of the superintendent.

Other board members said the legislation is too vague and does not adequately define what constitutes interference with the superintendent’s duties.

If legislators have issues with the School Board, they should bring them to the board, said Nancy Mounce, a former Lafayette council member.

“It’s not the place for the state to dictate to this board how it should operate,” Mounce said. “If problems exist … they need to be brought to this board. They don’t need to be brought to an education committee in Baton Rouge. I think it shows a lack of respect for this body.”

Landry wasn’t at Wednesday’s special board meetings. In an email to board members, which was also sent to the news media, she said she was not able to attend due to prior commitments related to the legislative session.

Landry defended the legislation, saying it aimed to improve voter turnout for elections to board seats and to address the need for a community discussion about School Board governance. She said the legislation just opens the door for discussion and places decisions on future governance in the hands of voters.

Only one of Landry’s bills has been through committee and passed by the House — House Bill 786, which seeks to change the election cycle for the School Board races to a gubernatorial election year. It has not been scheduled for consideration by the Senate yet.

Two other bills could change how people are chosen to serve on the School Board. One bill — House Bill 980 — creates a commission to study other forms of school board governance beyond the current model of board members being elected by voters representing specific districts they serve. The bill also gives the commission the authority to recommend an election to voters to decide if any charges should be made.

A second bill — House Bill 593 — is a constitutional amendment to make any governance changes with voter approval.

Neither bill has been considered by the House Education committee yet.

Pierre’s bill ­­— House Bill 1208 — would require parishes with populations between 195,000 and 225,000 to provide free transportation to charter schools.