Lafayette spat spurs far reaching school legislation

The tug-of-war between the parish School Board and Superintendent Pat Cooper over personnel decisions in the past year appears to have inspired legislation that will impact board and superintendent relations statewide.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, gives superintendents authority over all personnel decisions and prohibits board members from interfering with superintendents’ decisions through budget control and refusing to approve new or changed job descriptions.

Landry said the legislation — House bills 1231 and 1232 — isn’t specific to Lafayette Parish, but actions of the local School Board pushed the issues to the forefront as she considered potential legislation for the current session.

“This is not a problem unique to Lafayette Parish,” she said.

Landry said she views the legislation as a way to clarify a state law, known as Act 1, that took effect in July 2012. It created several changes in state education policy, including giving superintendents the authority to make firing and hiring decisions.

Aspects of the law remain under review by the courts.

Landry said HB 1232 more clearly defines that the superintendent has authority over all personnel decisions. Sections of Act 1 specify the superintendent’s authority over hiring and firing of teachers, while other sections use the word personnel.

Landry said a Louisiana Department of Education review of School Board minutes identified 18 incidents of noncompliance of Act 1 in 16 different districts as of September.

Barry Landry, a Louisiana Department of Education spokesman, said in an email that the department supports both bills.

The majority of noncompliance issues identified by the department were related to the hiring of teachers and principals, he said. He did not release further details of the types of incidents or identify the districts.

The House Education committee on April 30 approved HB 1232, related to the duties of the superintendent and interference of School Board members.

Landry voluntarily deferred HB 1231, which gives the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education the authority to review complaints of board member interference and allows for a petition to the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge to force the board or board members to comply with the law.

More research planned

Landry said she plans to investigate whether BESE is the appropriate body for the review after questions in committee were raised about its constitutionality.

“We’re going to do some more research and find the appropriate mechanism for enforcement,” Landry said.

Leaders of the state school boards and state superintendents associations say the bills aren’t needed.

“We, the state superintendents, are on record as opposing them because Act 1 already gives most of this authority to superintendents,” said Patrice Pujol, president of the Louisiana Association of Schools Superintendents and superintendent of Ascension Parish Schools.

Not all superintendents agree with the association’s position.

Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper said the kinds of experiences Lafayette has gone through have been experienced in other parts of the states.

He said it’s very clear in some people’s eyes that Act 1 “transferred a lot of the ability to operate the school system from the board to the superintendent, but it’s obvious that the board doesn’t agree with my thoughts on that.”

He said Landry’s legislations helps to clarify the issues to avoid any misunderstandings.

“This is not a Lafayette deal or to point fingers at the Lafayette Parish School Board,” Cooper said. “It’s to get some clarified language, so we don’t have to spend so much time fussing each other.”

Landry said Cooper didn’t request the legislation. However, she said, she consulted with him to see if the legislation, as drafted, would solve some of the issues in the parish and other parts of the state.

“It will allow the board and superintendent to work together and resolve conflicts,” Landry said. “There won’t be confusion about whose job it is to do what and they can move forward and focus on the kids.”

Landry has filed other pieces of legislation specific to Lafayette Parish, including HB 786 passed by the House that would sync the local School Board elections with the gubernatorial election as a way to boost voter turnout. Two other bills would enable Lafayette Parish voters to decide whether to change the current governance structure of the school board.

The Lafayette Parish School Board recently approved a resolution that outlines its opposition to legislation proposed by Landry and state Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, that would have required the school system to provide free bus transportation to charter school students. Pierre withdrew his legislation and plans to call for a study of the transportation issue.

The board’s resolution doesn’t specify opposition to bills 1232 and 1231, and School Board President Hunter Beasley said he may ask the board to consider a separate resolution opposing the two bills at its next board meeting on Wednesday.

“I feel that there needs to be some checks and balances and there’s no checks and balances with Act 1 and this particular bill, also,” Beasley said in reference to HB 1232. “Allowing the superintendents to have complete charge over all personnel matters — I have problems with that and I think it could be abused.”

Balance of power

While school boards had final approval of personnel matters, Beasley said there was still a balance of power because the superintendent brought personnel recommendations to the board.

Cooper and the Lafayette Parish School Board have been at odds on personnel decisions in the past year with the board calling for an investigation of some of Cooper’s management decisions.

The board reprimanded Cooper in April 2013 over his hiring of special assistant to the superintendent, Thad Welch. The board had approved Welch’s hiring in March 2012 — prior to the enactment of Act 1 in July 2013.

Later, in January 2013, the board started questioning why Cooper, who knew that Welch lacked a high school education, had recommended Welch for the job.

Cooper defended his decision and refused to terminate Welch. The board then voted to eliminate the funding for the special assistant to the superintendent position, but Welch remains on staff.

The board also has questioned other personnel decisions, such as the hiring of some principals at a different rate of pay and also refused to approve some new job descriptions.

Some view Landry’s legislation as a means to work out Lafayette’s power struggle.

“It appears as if Rep. Landry is trying to solve some issues that she feels are a problem in the Lafayette Parish school system but extend those issues to all school boards and superintendents across the state of Louisiana, and it’s not necessary in our opinion,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association. Richard is a former Lafayette Parish School System employee.

Richard said the state Department of Education, his organization and the state superintendents association agreed to collaborate and address any major noncompliance issues by school boards related to personnel decisions on a board-by-board basis.

The Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council issued a statement of support for Landry’s proposed legislation in advance of the House Education committee’s consideration. The two bills — HB 1231 and HB 1232 — rightly address micro-management by School Board members, said the council.

The council likened the superintendent to a chief executive officer of a company who needs the freedom to make personnel and management decisions. Cooper has used the same language in defense of the proposed legislation.

“‘The superintendent must be given the unfettered authority to do his or her job without being micromanaged or threatened with litigation or dismissal by the school board as he or she administers district affairs,” the statement read.

Lafayette Parish parent Ann Burruss attended the April 30 House Education committee on behalf of the organization Power of Public Education Lafayette and asked committee members to reject the legislation.

“It’s generally shocking to me and other people that problems in Lafayette Parish would be solved by a bill for the entire state,” Burruss said.

The board and Cooper may work out some of their issues soon. After his formal reprimand last year, Cooper proposed that he and the board work out their issues in mediation.

However, the board didn’t consider his offer until earlier this year and didn’t set a date until recently. They’ll meet on May 10 in what they’re calling a retreat, instead of mediation. In separate interviews Friday, Cooper and Beasley expressed the same hope for the retreat’s outcome — finding common ground.