Lafayette board stalls bid award on L.J. Alleman Middle project

The Lafayette Parish School Board stalled the award of a nearly $4 million construction project, delaying work on a new cafeteria for L.J. Alleman Middle School after some board members strongly questioned the $1.2 million increase in the cost of the project.

The project initially was budgeted at roughly $3 million. Based on recommendations from the architect, however, the project expanded to seat at least 400 students at a time for lunch service, said Kyle Bordelon, the district’s facilities planning director. The project also involves renovations to the school’s existing gymnasium and is one of several projects funded by a $30 million bond sale approved by the board in 2012.

Bordelon said $1.6 million is available in a contingency fund to cover the cost increase.

Despite the available funds, board member Tommy Angelle questioned the added expense of the project.

Alleman’s existing cafeteria seats 180 students. About 1,100 students attend the school, requiring the school to schedule four and sometimes, five lunch periods, said Jennifer Gardner, the school’s assistant principal. The school enrolls students from across the district.

“We start (lunch) at 10:35 and don’t finish until 2 o’clock,” Gardner said. “Our numbers will never decrease because we’re a school of choice.”

Board member Rae Trahan offered a motion to accept a bid of $3.9 million for the project to low bidder Master Builders & Specialists, but withdrew the motion to ask for time to review the plans for the project. Trahan said the board has viewed plans for other school projects in the past, but has not been provided plans for the Alleman project.

Bordelon said he could make the project drawings available to board members on Thursday.

The board’s next regular meeting is Aug. 6.

In another matter Wednesday, board member Shelton Cobb requested an update on the board’s investigation of Superintendent Pat Cooper, though received few answers. Cobb made a similar request at the board’s July 2 meeting with the same result.

Last July, the board voted to hire special counsel to investigate its complaints about Cooper. That investigation didn’t get underway until sometime in May. The July 2013 decision to hire an attorney for an investigation came a few months after the board voted to formally reprimand Cooper for not firing his special assistant, Thad Welch, after the board stripped funding for the position after learning Welch was hired even though he didn’t have the required high school education for the job. Cooper has cited a state law that took effect in July 2012 that gives superintendents authority over personnel decisions as his reason for not following the board’s request.

Cobb said Wednesday he wants to know if and when the board should expect a report from Dennis Blunt, the Baton Rouge attorney hired as special counsel to conduct the investigation.

Board president Hunter Beasley said he hasn’t received any report, but would forward it to all board members when he does receive it.

Cobb then questioned whether board members were allowed to directly contact attorneys and referenced an invoice from the board’s interim general counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, that shows Trahan called board attorney Bob Hammonds twice. The calls totaled a half hour and cost $87.50.

Hammonds said his agreement with the board states that his firm provides services as requested by the board, its president or the superintendent. However, he and his attorneys do work, particularly related to personnel issues, that isn’t necessarily assigned or requested by the superintendent. Hammonds said the general counsel agreement with the board is unusual and said he thinks it’s inappropriate that his firm is not allowed to directly speak with individual board members.

“I can’t say I’ve ever represented a board where I’m prohibited from speaking to board members,” he said.

Following the meeting, Trahan said her calls to Hammonds were to ask relevant legal questions and she shared the information she received with other board members. According to the invoice, her calls were about the board’s process to select new special counsel — prior to Blunt’s official selection for the investigation — and an allegation about the board’s violation of the state’s open meetings law.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.