Superintendent authority bill axed

Legislation targeting Lafayette School Board dies in House

The Louisiana House flatly rejected legislation Monday aimed at preventing all school boards — and the Lafayette Parish School Board in particular — from meddling with superintendents’ personnel decisions.

State Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, said House Bill 1232 would neuter school boards. “You will not be able to do the functions of a school board member,” he said.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Nancy Landry, said HB1232 would just prevent school boards from creatively circumventing the spirit of the law. It was supported by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Landry, R-Lafayette, pointed out that the legislation is opposed by unions. “If you’re a conservative, this is a good government bill,” she said.

The House rejected the legislation, with 34 voting for it and 57 voting against it.

At issue is a state law that took effect two years ago. The law gave superintendents firing and hiring authority, but problems still exist.

In Lafayette Parish, Superintendent Pat Cooper and the School Board have struggled with maintaining a harmonious relationship.

One issue arose when Cooper hired a special assistant, Thad Welch, who lacked a high school education. The board approved Welch’s hiring but later reprimanded Cooper for his choice.

When Cooper refused to fire Welch, the board voted to eliminate the special assistant’s salary. Welch remains on staff.

Cooper also has wrestled with the board over the hiring of principals at different pay rates.

The Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council said HB1232 would address School Board members’ micromanagement.

Landry told the House on Monday that the bill would close loopholes and “turn the focus back to the mission of educating children.” Among other things, she said the bill would clarify that the shift in responsibility to superintendents included decisions over all personnel.

State Rep. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, asked if the bill was aimed at Lafayette Parish.

Landry acknowledged that problems exist in Lafayette Parish. She said the bill would have a broader impact and would avoid conflict in the future.

“It’s not just a local bill, and it’s not just a problem in Lafayette Parish,” she said.

The House resisted tweaking the 2012 law.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, and Price told Landry that some legislators were having different interpretations of the bill’s impact.

Specifically, Smith and Price had problems with the bill forbidding school board members from acting with intent to interfere with a superintendent’s personnel decisions.

“You think a school board member will state on the record, ‘We are defunding a position because we don’t like the individual that the superintendent hired?’ I don’t think so,” Price said.

Smith, a former school board member, said Landry could create problems in other parishes while trying to fix issues in Lafayette Parish. Smith said expensive legal fights would erupt over school board members’ intent when disagreement exists over a decision.

“This should’ve been a local bill, did you know,” Smith said.

Price said 80 percent of school districts are following the law, yet Landry wants to target everyone because of Lafayette Parish. “We shouldn’t be targeting boards like that,” he said.

State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, came to Landry’s defense, saying she wanted to depoliticize the running of our schools. “I thank you for bringing this bill,” Stokes said.

Then, Harrison walked to the podium on the House floor and took the microphone. He said the bill is just bad.

Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.