Community leaders look for changes on School Board

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a December board meeting. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper speaks during a December board meeting.

In 2013, the community watched the Lafayette Parish School Board tackle controversy in a way that led students’ mothers and retirees to chastise them for their behavior.

Now, in 2014, business and community group leaders say they hope the board can focus on the school system’s mission — educating children.

“The dysfunction in the Lafayette Parish School Board is the most urgent policy issue for our business community,” said Jason El Koubi, president of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.

El Koubi joined the chamber in September and said in his conversations with others in the business community, their chief concerns loop back to public education and the School Board’s discord in the past year.

“They’ve seen several decisions come from the School Board that seem to come from adult concerns rather than education, including the recent decision to dismiss the district attorney as general counsel. … They see the School Board, by only a narrow majority, agreeing to Dr. (Pat) Cooper’s request for (mediation) after rejecting a request to accelerate that process,” El Koubi said.

Looking forward in 2014, the board faces challenges that include balancing a budget deficit estimated at $14 million. It also will have some new neighbors; charter schools that the board rejected will open doors to students in August.

There’s also carryover from unfinished business from a tumultuous 2013 that saw the board formally reprimand Superintendent Pat Cooper then later request an investigation by a law firm into its complaints against him.

It’s been a rocky year for relations between the board and Cooper, fueled by debate over the board’s changed authority effected by a 2012 education law known as Act 1.

The new law includes several changes to personnel matters, including transferring final hiring and firing decisions from the board’s authority to the superintendent.

Cooper has planned a workshop on Act 1, facilitated by University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor Nathan Roberts, a former assistant district attorney. Roberts directs the university’s educational foundations and leadership program and teaches aspiring principals and superintendents school law.

The district’s six-year turnaround plan is a focus in 2014 for the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council, a consortium of business and community groups created in 2009.

“Closing the achievement gap and focusing on the turnaround plan are the driving factors of LaPESC and where we want to take things in 2014,” said Stephen Bartley, incoming chairman of LaPESC.

The consortium intends to provide oversight of the plan’s progress to ensure the district stays on target with its achievement goals, Bartley said.

The turnaround plan, called 100 Percent In, 100 Percent Out, is a six-year plan created in 2012 with a goal of improving district performance to an A state accountability rating. The district’s current rating is a B.

A proposed tax plan that could have funded implementation of the plan and school facility improvements failed to win the support of the School Board in November.

A volunteer advisory group proposed a combination of sales and property tax increases to fund school district needs, but the board opted not to further discuss the proposal.

In the next year, the board needs to find funding for the plan, said Heather Blanchard, chairwoman of a new districtwide parent group, Parents Empowered. Blanchard also served on the volunteer advisory committee that proposed the tax plan.

She said she’d like to see the board use its rainy-day reserves to implement the plan in the upcoming school year.

“How can we continue to implement what the community put together as our plan?” Blanchard said. “The children of today are not benefiting from money sitting in the bank. It’s raining and this is what we need it for.”