Lafayette SB passes on discussing lawsuit threat

The Lafayette Parish School Board voted Wednesday not to discuss a potential federal lawsuit that Cajundome director Greg Davis threatens to file unless the board drops its investigation of Superintendent Pat Cooper.

The suit, if filed, would ask a judge to disqualify two board members from voting on Cooper’s termination. The suit also would ask the judge to address budgeting concerns.

The board members, who did not discuss in public the merits of the potential case, adjourned the meeting after deciding not to go into executive session on the matter.

Following the meeting, Davis’ attorney, Gary McGoffin, said he plans to move forward with his client’s lawsuit and could file it within the week.

“They had an opportunity to discuss it and they chose not to,” McGoffin said.

Davis put the board on notice earlier this week that he’d file a lawsuit asking the court to disqualify two board members, Mark Allen Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion, from voting on any termination proceedings against Cooper, claiming they are biased against the superintendent.

The timing of Davis’ lawsuit threat comes two months after an attorney began an investigation of Cooper at the board’s request, a first step to a possible termination proceeding.

Davis was not at Wednesday’s meeting due to a planned vacation. Prior to the board meeting, Chassion scoffed at the bias claim, asking if his vote in support of Cooper as superintendent in late 2011 was a sign of bias against all the other candidates.

“I don’t put much stake in desperate attempts to try and take away responsibility delegated to us in our elected position,” Chassion said.

He also questioned the intentions of Davis — and McGoffin — both of whom Chassion said supported charter schools in the district. Three new charter schools will open next week to about 1,800 students. McGoffin is the attorney for the Lafayette Charter Foundation board, which oversees two of the three new charter schools.

On Wednesday, the board with a 4-5 vote defeated a motion to meet behind closed doors to discuss Davis’ threat of litigation, with board members Greg Awbrey, Kermit Bouillion, Mark Cockerham and Shelton Cobb voting in favor of the discussion. After the vote, the board agreed to adjourn, shutting down any other attempt for other action.

Davis’ potential lawsuit also could ask the court to force the district to comply with a state law that would require the board to roll forward with 50 percent of its budget from last year for its failure to adopt a budget before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The School Board faced its steepest shortfall yet — a record $23.5 million — as it began its review of the 2014-15 spending plan in May. The board met more than a dozen times since then and opted to review the budget to identify cuts rather than accept at least 10 balanced budgets proposed by Cooper.

Last week, the board balanced the budget with about $20 million in cuts, including some purchases of instructional materials and textbooks. As a compromise, the board set aside $2.5 million from its rainy day account to cover textbook costs.

The board will meet next week to again discuss the budget, board president Hunter Beasley said. A date for that meeting has not yet been announced, although it could be as early as Tuesday.

Earlier in the meeting, the board took no action on supervisors’ request for more funding for new textbooks and other instructional materials — even though students will be arriving at schools Tuesday.

Teacher Kimberly Domangue, urging the board to order English language arts materials, said teachers are stressed because they’re without the appropriate materials.

Instructional supervisors asked for nearly $3.1 million in instructional materials for the upcoming school year. The request was on the board’s agenda as an introduction item and not up for a vote, though the board has the power to advance a vote with a simple majority of five votes among the nine members.

The list of requested materials exceeds the $2.5 million the board set aside last week to cover those expenses.

“We’re in a situation where our materials are old and are standards are elevated,” Karen Williams, the district’s director of academics, told the board.

Williams noted the board previously approved new materials for math and science and for English language arts in grades six through 12.

An area where the new materials are most needed is in kindergarten through fifth grade, “which in my opinion is the most critical time to reach students in reading and math,” Williams said.

Board member Rae Trahan questioned some of the textbook options and the fact that the supervisors’ wish list exceeds the allocated $2.5 million.

Williams said the materials were selected based on research of their success. “We would never set (schools) up for failure,” she said.

Trahan said she’d prefer to delay a decision on the purchase and assumed staff would bring their plans on how to spend the $2.5 million in a separate budget meeting.

“I want to see them justify the purchase of things with statistics and information … or balance it to the $2.5 (million),” Trahan said. “It’s the overage that causes the question.”

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.