School Board to consider mediation with Cooper

Advocate file photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a School Board meeting. Show caption
Advocate file photo by BRAD BOWIE -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a School Board meeting.

Issues include personnel decisions, changes over new law

The Lafayette Parish School Board might decide Wednesday whether to meet in two, separate day-long sessions to work out their differences — with each other and the superintendent — and find common ground on changes brought about by a new state law that took effect last year.

Superintendent Pat Cooper’s request for a day-long mediation between School Board members and key district administrators, and a separate request for a day-long training on governance issues are on the board’s agenda Wednesday.

Cooper also has requested the board make a decision during Wednesday’s meeting.

“We can’t spend another year at odds. I feel like we need some outside help,” Cooper said Monday.

The board has been at odds over personnel decisions Cooper has made and reprimanded him for the 2012 hiring of a special assistant to the superintendent over facilities, maintenance, grounds and transportation who did not have the required high school education. In the past few months, the board has challenged other personnel decisions made by Cooper, who says his actions are supported by Act 1.

The state law, enacted in July 2012, involves several changes in education law including teacher evaluation and pay and moving final personnel decisions from the authority of school boards to superintendents. Several aspects of the law are under legal review, further complicating board and superintendent relations.

The conflicts between Cooper and the board haven’t gone unnoticed. At the board’s Nov. 20 meeting, retired school system nurse supervisor Betty Alford asked whether the board needed an arbitrator.

“I have never seen such an adversarial relationship between the superintendent and the board,” Alford said during the Nov. 20 meeting. She said she thought the issues stemmed from a need for clarification on Act 1.

“I do know this —we need to come together and make peace rather than war if we’re trying to teach our children. I would hate if the students are watching some of these board meetings, because it gets a little embarrassing,” she said.

The proposed trainings would be provided at no cost to the school district, Cooper said. He said a mediator has volunteered services, but added he could not disclose who made the offer until Tuesday or Wednesday. Nathan Roberts, a professor who directs the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s educational leadership program, volunteered for the governance seminar, Cooper said.

Roberts teaches a school law class to educators who are in the university’s master’s and doctoral programs.

“We try to make sure that future superintendents and future principals know what the law says so they can work with it,” Roberts said.

In addition to a doctorate in educational leadership, Roberts also holds a law degree and is a former 15th Judicial District assistant district attorney. From 1996 to 2001, he was appointed by the district attorney as the School Board’s general counsel.

Legal services have been a more recent area of conflict between the board and Cooper. On Nov. 20, the board voted to relieve the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel.

The board will vote Wednesday to select its special counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice as its interim general counsel as it conducts a search for a permanent replacement.

Cooper contends the board’s dismissal of the DA’s Office is invalid because it has yet to revise existing policy that names the DA’s Office as its general counsel. Awbrey maintains that the board plans to revise its policy and its intentions have been made clear.

Awbrey said Monday that he’d consider meditation and governance seminars, but didn’t abandon skepticism.

“I’ll always sit down and talk,” he said. “All these conversations have gone one-way in the past, so I don’t know how this one will be different, but we can see.”

Awbrey said he thinks conversations with Cooper have been “one-way” in the past because “myself and many of the other members – are being told what the law is by the superintendent, what the superintendent can do by the superintendent and being told by the superintendent what we can do.”

“I don’t know how a mediation is going to solve that issue,” Awbrey said. “I’m willing to sit down and talk. Everybody seems to be talking — but no one seems to be listening or bending at all, so you have some major conflicts on what some staff are being paid, hiring practices, a lot of these things are big issues.”

Cooper has made several pitches for mediation and governance training in the past few months, but this is the first time that the suggestions have made it onto a board meeting agenda. Cooper said he thinks the two recommendations will find the board’s support.

“If they have the kids at heart and the teaches at heart — they’ll do what we’re requesting,” he said.