Lafayette school board reviewing auditor’s salary questions

The School Board’s executive committee is considering how to respond to an external auditor’s questions about discrepancies in the Lafayette Parish school district’s salary schedule relative to the pay of some principals.

The audit found that some employees were hired at a rate of pay that conflicted with the salary schedule approved by the board. Auditors also questioned whether the current salary schedule was in line with certain provisions of state law.

The auditing firm of Kolder, Champagne, Slaven & Company flagged the salary schedule issue in an audit of the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The board’s executive committee could take the matter up for further discussion in the next few weeks.

The school system had to submit a corrective action plan to address the issue. That plan involves referring the findings to legal counsel and addressing the issue by March 31.

The school district’s staff proposed the board approve a resolution to seek an attorney general opinion on the issue raised in the audit. However, board members rejected that idea at the March 5 board meeting.

Some board members cited concerns about an untimely response or the lack of one from the Attorney General’s Office because the state legislation at the heart of the issue, Act 1, remains under judicial review.

The law made several changes to education policies, including paying teachers based on performance, and also gave superintendents final say on hiring and firing decisions, a power that until July 2012 was held by school boards.

That shift in power has sparked several debates over the past year between Superintendent Pat Cooper and some board members.

Board President Hunter Beasley said the board could revisit the issue of seeking a legal opinion at its next meeting.

“I think some board members had a problem with the way it was written,” Beasley said of the resolution. “I don’t know if the attorney general was going to issue an opinion about the legality of Act 1 because it’s still in the courts.”

Last year, some board members questioned why some principals — at least four — were being paid more than others, a decision made by Cooper.

Most school-based administrators work 203 or 213 days, but the four administrators were hired at 244 days, which boosted their salaries. Cooper has defended his decision, saying they were hard-to-fill positions and Act 1 gives him the authority to staff schools.

The resolution, considered by the board on March 5, asked the attorney general whether “Act 1 of 2012 and/or the superintendent’s contract” gives Cooper authority to prorate some principals’ salaries over the approved salary schedule.

Some board members attempted to send the resolution to executive committee to rewrite the request during the March 5 meeting; however, the proposal received the support of only three board members — Beasley, Mark Cockerham and Shelton Cobb.

In a subsequent 6-3 vote, members rejected the resolution altogether. Board members Cockerham, Cobb and Kermit Bouillion voted against rejecting the resolution.

Board Vice President Tommy Angelle voted with the majority to reject the resolution. He said Friday that he wasn’t opposed to seeking legal advice but didn’t want to submit a request to the Attorney General’s Office because of the lengthy response time with the board’s prior requests.

He said the board will need to seek legal advice and draft a response to comply with the audit but that a more timely response could come from board attorneys rather than the Attorney General’s Office.

“He probably gets thousands of them,” Angelle said. “My general experience has been with attorney generals opinions, they take a long time coming.”

Currently, the board only has one pending attorney general request, dated Dec. 4, for an advisory opinion on the district’s memorandum of understanding with the Louisiana Department of Education for the review of charter school applications.

The request, drafted by Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton Jr., is dated Dec. 4, but the Attorney General’s Office didn’t receive it until March 6, Laura Gerdes Colligan, an Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman, said in an email.

Hamilton said Friday that he sent the request for an advisory opinion on Dec. 4 and wasn’t notified until March 6 when he called to check on the request that it had not been received. He said he resent the information electronically on March 6.

In July, the board approved a resolution to hire special counsel to investigate Cooper, which required an attorney general opinion. The Attorney General’s Office received that request on Aug. 28.

But on Sept. 30, the office received a letter from Hamilton to place a hold on the request, Colligan said. Later, on Oct. 23, Hamilton sent another letter that suspended approval of the board’s request for special counsel, Colligan said.

In the Oct. 23 letter, Hamilton wrote that he found no cause for an investigation, which upset some board members, leading a month later to a majority voting to relieve the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel.

Hamilton is transitioning out of his duties since the naming of an interim general counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, a law firm with offices in Baton Rouge and Monroe.