Lafayette SB remains mum on Cooper investigation

The Lafayette Parish School Board stayed mum Wednesday on the investigation it launched of Superintendent Pat Cooper despite questions from one board member about the status of the inquiry.

“It’s been a month or so that this investigation was supposed to start,” Shelton Cobb told the board. “I haven’t heard from anyone.

“Shortly after I put the item on the agenda, I did get an email saying this firm was going to show up. Are they here today?”

Neither the attorney hired by the board, Dennis Blunt, nor any representative from his firm was present at the board’s meeting Wednesday.

The board approved hiring a lawyer to investigate some members’ complaints against Cooper last year, though the investigation just recently began. The board has yet to disclose to Cooper or the public the cause, timeline or expected expense related to the investigation.

While the board has not stated its reasons for the investigation publicly, many members have not been silent about their disapproval of Cooper’s management decisions in the past year and a half. A majority of the board formally reprimanded Cooper in April 2013 for refusing to terminate an employee after the board stripped the funding for the position when it learned the employee didn’t have the high school education required for the job.

Cooper and the board also have bickered over other personnel decisions, with Cooper citing a state law that gives school superintendents authority over personnel matters and the board scrambling to gain control over its sole employee, the superintendent.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Cooper asked board members if any of them had been in contact with the attorney.

Board member Mark Allen Babineaux raised his hand to indicate yes, but did not elaborate on his interaction with Blunt. Board president Hunter Beasley said he had received an email that stated board members should contact Blunt if they need to discuss any issues with him.

The school system has had technical issues with its email system that could have thwarted communications with the attorney, board member Tommy Angelle said. Technology director LaShonda Dickerson said the district is moving to a hosted server, which should prevent future hacking problems.

Last month, Cooper, in a letter, formally waived his right to privacy and gave the board permission to discuss their complaints publicly, but board members have kept mum.

In May, the board’s attorney warned board members not to disclose its issues with Cooper, because they are personnel matters. The investigation is a necessary step if the board plans to bring formal charges to begin a termination process, the board’s attorney has explained.

The board on Wednesday also approved the results of its evaluation of the superintendent. The board gave Cooper a score of 3.54 on an 8-point scale at its June 18 meeting. The rating was a slight drop from the score of 4.067 Cooper received in his 2013 evaluation.

Also on Wednesday, the board agreed to spend $35,000 to repair smoke damage at S.J. Montgomery Elementary School caused by a May fire set by a student in one of the school’s bathrooms.

The board voted 5-3 to table a decision on the purchase of $998,000 worth of English language arts materials for elementary school teachers until it completes its budget review. The district faces a $23.5 million shortfall. In the past week, the board made less than $1 million in cuts to the budget.

Board members Beasley, Babineaux, Angelle, Rae Trahan and Tehmi Chassion voted to wait on a decision about the purchase. Board members Cobb, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham voted against waiting to buy the materials.

Prior to the board’s vote, assistant superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau appealed to the board to fund the materials so teachers can receive them before the start of school on Aug. 12. The board tabled the purchase last month pending a budget review.

“If we’re going to be about kids and teachers and giving them what they need, then I’m asking you and imploring you to go ahead and fund this,” Billeaudeau said.

The current materials are about six or seven years old and do not align with new learning standards, said Stephanie Bordelon, the district’s ELA specialist.

The state’s future implementation of the Common Core State Standards is at the center of debate on purchasing the materials.

On Tuesday, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to hire an attorney in response to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to pull the plug on the state’s implementation of the standards and the tests tied to them. Because of the potential legal dispute, parent Ann Burruss questioned if it is a wise time for the district to spend money on Common Core-aligned materials.

Regardless of the outcome on Common Core, teachers still need new materials, Bordelon said.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.