Cooper urges Lafayette board to put ‘missteps’ behind

Superintendent Pat Cooper extended an olive branch to Lafayette Parish School Board members at the start of a board retreat Saturday, saying he wants to move past prior missteps and work together in the best interest of the district’s students and teachers.

“I think there were missteps that were made in a lot of areas, me included, because this is a complicated business, and in the past two years it’s been a fast-moving business,” Cooper said. “So, I want to take this opportunity to apologize if I’ve offended anybody because I feel that this is a real opportunity for us to move forward.”

Relations between Cooper and most board members have been strained in the past year, with the board opposing some of his management decisions.

The board opposition was reflected in a formal reprimand of Cooper in April 2013 and in the board’s July decision to hire special counsel to investigate him.

That investigation is still pending even as Cooper continues to challenge the board’s action, withholding payment for an attorney’s time drafting a letter to the attorney general relating to the investigation.

“I feel like I have a choice for the rest of my term to make this a success and not to fight every day,” Cooper said Saturday. “My commitment is to cease whatever attacks there might have been that I’m responsible for. My concern is to do what’s right for children and move on.”

The retreat has been a long time coming.

Cooper had proposed entering mediation with board members after his formal reprimand, but no date was set until earlier this month. After some board members opposed the idea of mediation, the session was recast as a retreat to talk about issues facing the district.

Board members did not respond or react to Cooper’s offer of an olive branch at Saturday’s retreat, but instead moved on to a discussion of the school system’s budget and other matters.

One major issue for the district is the opening of three new charter schools, which Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry told the board could impact its budget by $12.6 million due to about 1,200 Lafayette Parish students — private and public — enrolling in the new charter schools.

A total of more than 1,500 students have enrolled in the schools with about 300 from out-of-parish schools attending the charters, Cooper told the board.

The board meets on May 20 to discuss its general fund budget and how to manage a projected $12 million shortfall for the upcoming school year.

The board has about $71 million set aside in the general fund in reserves or a rainy day account. Policy requires the board to retain at least three months of operating expenses in the rainy day account, which amounts to about $66 million.

Board President Hunter Beasley asked board members on Saturday to weigh in on whether they’d support using the excess $5 million in the account to help bridge the shortfall.

The money belongs to taxpayers and should be spent on the district’s children, said board member Shelton Cobb.

Beasley said he’d support using the $5 million, as well as tapping up to $4 million more from the fund.

The board has previously been asked to consider changing its reserve fund policy to reduce its operational reserve from three months to two or 2.5 months but rejected the idea earlier this year. The discussion resurfaced during the retreat, though Beasley seemed to be the only one in support of reducing the operational reserve time limit.

Board members Tommy Angelle and Kermit Bouillion said they’d support using the $5 million in excess, but no other board members committed to dipping below the three-month operational reserve.

Board member Greg Awbrey rejected the idea of using the reserves because it would be a one-time remedy to the budget shortfalls.

“As much as we want to do that, it cannot work,” Awbrey said. “I would love for that to work. I know whoever is on the board next year will be in the same position, and they’re going to have both holes to fill.”

Because the board has experienced shortfalls in the past few years, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau suggested the board consider a strategic plan to prepare for and prevent future shortfalls.

Cooper has previously proposed a tax to continue to fund school district operations in the future. A tax proposal recommended by a committee of community members last year didn’t gain traction with the board.

Awbrey said he thinks parish residents want to see efforts directed to neighborhood schools in their community and not a parishwide initiative.

Cooper said some businesses have stepped up that want to contribute in major ways to local schools, and the district’s office of community collaborations and partnerships is taking steps to make community involvement in schools easier.

Board members Tehmi Chassion, Mark Babineaux and Rae Trahan were unable to attend the retreat, citing prior commitments. The retreat ended about an hour early.

At the retreat’s conclusion, parent Ella Arsement commended the board and staff for their frank, honest discussion and said she wants to see more of it.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter @Marsha_Sills.