Group seeks public feedback on board’s performance

A local coalition’s effort to get public feedback on the Lafayette Parish School Board’s performance during board meetings riled at least one board member who called the effort “propaganda” and said people should come to board meetings if they want to share their opinions.

The Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council launched its feedback initiative, called Project Involve, during the board’s Wednesday meeting.

The group’s members passed out copies of a survey form during the meeting asking the public for its opinions on topics ranging from board member preparedness for meetings to their professionalism and whether they made reference to data or research before voting on an issue.

Representatives of the Public Education Stakeholders Council made a presentation about the initiative during the board meeting, which is aired live on Acadiana Open Channel.

The feedback will be shared with board members and the public as a way to improve governance, council member Valerye Boles told the board.

Board member Mark Allen Babineaux questioned why the group was focused solely on the board’s performance and was not also asking the public to rate the school system’s superintendent. He called the survey propaganda.

“If they have concerns of governance, I think they should make that known here at the board meeting. They have every opportunity at public comment,” Babineaux said.

Unlike the School Board, the superintendent isn’t elected, Boles said.

It’s the board’s job to evaluate the superintendent, while the School Board is accountable to the community, Margaret Trahan, president of the United Way of Acadiana, later told the board. The United Way and 12 other groups, including the Lafayette Parish School System, are part of the council.

Babineaux also questioned why the school system was a member. Board member Greg Awbrey, who said he supported the Project Involve effort, requested a resolution or related paperwork showing the school system rejoined the council.

When the group formed a few years ago, the school system had been a founding member; however, the district withdrew over concerns of potential conflicts of interest because the council planned to be involved in candidate forums.

Margaret Trahan told the board that the council extended an invitation for the school system to rejoin once Superintendent Pat Cooper began his job in 2012. She said the group does not give candidate endorsements but has planned candidate forums.

Board members Rae Trahan, Awbrey and Shelton Cobb said they welcome the critiques, which Rae Trahan said the media provides on a daily basis.

Also at the meeting, board members Kermit Bouillion, Cobb and Mark Cockerham asked the board majority to disclose why it was paying for an investigation of Cooper and how much the investigation, led by an attorney, would cost the school system.

The board approved the request to hire special counsel to conduct the investigation at its May 7 meeting after an earlier stab at mounting an investigation fell apart.

Last April, the board reprimanded Cooper after he refused to fire an employee without the required high school education for the job of special assistant to the superintendent of facilities, maintenance, grounds and transportation. Cooper has defended keeping the employee on the payroll, citing a state law that gives him final say on personnel decisions.

Since then, the board has questioned other personnel decisions made by Cooper, such as hiring some principals at different pay rates. However, the resolution approved by the board majority does not provide specific reasons for the investigation.

Some board members are in the dark about the investigation, which will cost the district more money at a time when the school system is faced with potential budget cuts in the upcoming school year, Cockerham said.

“We need to know for us, our constituents, who are asking these questions, how much is this going to cost our system?” Cockerham asked.

Bouillion said the board should inform the public of the reason for the investigation.

“Let’s list the allegations. Let’s list the charges. He has a right to know that. Our constituents have a right to know that,” Bouillion said.

The board’s attorney, Jon Guice, advised the board against disclosing any allegations. He said there are no charges against Cooper and the investigator will visit with each board member to discuss specific issues.

“To get in a public meeting and debate the specifics of the investigation or potential charges or anything involving personnel, I do not feel to be appropriate,” Guice said.

In other business, the board deferred discussion of a charter school application from Kingdom Builders Community Development Corporation because the district received a third-party review of the application late due to technical issues with the school district’s email system.

The district received a draft of the review late Friday, but it wasn’t enough time to give the applicant time to respond, said Tom Spencer, the district’s accountability specialist.

The nonprofit group proposed a career and technical high school, Kingdom Collegiate Academy of Excellence, to open in the 2015-16 school year.

Spencer said the board will need to consider the application and make a decision about it at its June 4 meeting to meet a state deadline of June 5 for charter school applications.

District staff has recommended that the board reject the application, though Spencer did not disclose the reasons and there was no further discussion of the application.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.