Lafayette board votes to proceed with Cooper investigation

The Lafayette Parish School Board started round three Wednesday of its attempts to launch an investigation of management decisions made by Superintendent Pat Cooper.

The board in a 6-2 vote approved hiring Baton Rouge lawyer Sheldon Dennis Blunt, of the Baton Rouge law firm Phelps Dunbar, as special counsel to investigate Cooper.

“I think this is pure politics and a waste of money,” Cooper said prior to the board’s vote.

The board resolution approved Wednesday did not state the cause or reasons for the investigation, and board members Kermit Bouillon and Shelton Cobb questioned why one was sought.

The two cast the only votes against hiring special counsel .

Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Rae Trahan, Hunter Beasley, Tommy Angelle and Tehmi Chassion voted in favor; board member Mark Cockerham was absent.

“What is the specific focus of this investigation? Taxpayers have the right to know what these allegations are,” Bouillion said.

The board originally approved a resolution seeking permission to hire special counsel to investigate Cooper in July but that request wasn’t approved by the Attorney General’s Office until last month.

The delay was due in part to the board’s former general counsel, Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton Jr., advising the AG’s Office that the investigation was unwarranted.

The board relieved Hamilton and the District Attorney’s Office from its general counsel duties in November and the resolution was reconsidered last month by the Attorney General’s Office at the request of the board’s new interim general counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice.

An attorney who started investigating and submitted a public records request with Cooper last month withdrew as special counsel about a week later, citing a lack of time.

Speaking before the board’s vote, Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce President Jason El Koubi asked the board to explain its reasons for seeking an investigation, saying approval of the resolution would shift money out of the classroom and to lawyers.

“We owe it to ourselves to the community to say what is being investigated clearly,” El Koubi said. “For what has been alleged, it feels like this investigation is not necessary.”

He suggested the board and Cooper work out their issues on their own.

Cooper called the board’s move a waste of taxpayer money and said no wrongdoing had been uncovered Hamilton or auditors. He questioned the choice of special counsel, an attorney who previously worked with the board’s current interim general counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice.

Attorney Bob Hammonds confirmed Blunt previously worked for his firm and said Blunt recently conducted a similar investigation in north Louisiana and has both the expertise and experience to work for the board.

The board reprimanded Cooper in April 2013 for withholding information about the educational background of an employee he recommended in March 2012 for a new position of special assistant to the superintendent on maintenance, facilities, grounds and transportation. The person Cooper chose did not have the high school education required for the job.

Cooper has defended his decision, citing a new state law gives superintendents broad authority over personnel matters.

Babineaux, who voted with the board majority on hiring special counsel, said the resolution isn’t to start a new investigation, but to replace the attorney for a decision approved last year. Hammonds said the resolution is identical to the one approved last month by the Attorney General’s Office and he did not expect any delays for another approval.

The public records request the previous special counsel filed with Cooper last month sheds some light on issues of interest to board members.

The requests seeks records related to Cooper’s contract; salaries and work days of principals; the creation of the special assistant to the superintendent’s position and his salary and work days; and other management decisions.

In other matters Wednesday, Cooper pulled from the board’s agenda controversial proposals intended to curb teachers’ early resignations and excessive sick leave. Cooper said he wanted to vet the proposals with staff and teacher groups before bringing them before the board again.

Cooper proposed changing sick leave policy to require that teachers submit a doctor’s excuse for more than three consecutive days of absences or for absences before or after holiday breaks or other school closures. Typically, teachers need only submit a doctor’s excuse if they’re absent for six consecutive days and no excuse is required for other absences. Cooper said the district pays $16 million annually for teacher sick leave ­— enough money to fund more than 250 teacher positions.

Proposed changes to teacher contracts would have required teachers, starting with the next school year, to pay a $2,000 penalty if they resigned before March 15. Teachers would have to pay $1,000 if they resigned after March 15, but before the end of the school year.

Angelle urged the board not removed the items from the agenda, as Cooper wanted, but rather take the proposals up Wednesday and defeat them.

Beasley, the board’s president, told Angelle it’s rare for the board not to allow items to be pulled from the agenda The board ultimately voted 6-1 to approve the agenda with the items removed. Angelle cast the sole vote in opposition. Board members Cockerham and Chassion were absent for the vote.