Cooper: Cuts could put budget out of compliance with law

The budget turf war between Superintendent Pat Cooper and a majority of the Lafayette Parish School Board continued Thursday with Cooper arguing that cuts the board has made place the district out of compliance with state and federal laws.

The argument isn’t a new one posed to the board by Cooper or his staff during the board’s review of the school district’s general fund that began in mid-May. Since then, the board has met a dozen times to seek its own answers to offset a $23.5 million shortfall, instead of accepting numerous proposals by Cooper to balance the budget while protecting instructional services and jobs. During the board’s last budget meeting on July 31, it came within $1.3 million of its $23.5 million target and voted to approve the proposed general fund and cover the remaining funding gap with money from its rainy day account.

The board met again on Thursday and, based on the agenda, was scheduled to consider another budget proposal from Cooper — but it didn’t. Not after board member Rae Trahan reminded staff that it’s already approved the proposed general fund — cuts and all — and voted on July 31 for staff to advertise that the spending plan would be available for public review, as well as the dates for a public hearing and meeting of final adoption of the 2014-15 budget.

Trahan questioned early in the meeting why public notice had not been given since the board gave those directives two weeks ago.

Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry told her, “I missed that one.” Guidry explained he had not noted the board’s action on the matter and was prepared for the board to continue its general fund discussions, as evidenced on the agenda, during Thursday’s meeting.

A review of the July 31 minutes showed that the board did take action to proceed, though Cooper continued to challenge the board’s decision.

Board attorney Bob Hammonds told the board that it will be able to amend the budget as often as it likes; however, it has a statutory obligation to approve the budget by Sept. 15.

“We all know that what you advertise may not be what you finish with,” Hammonds said. “You need to advertise to meet the Sept. 15 deadline.”

Cooper said while he agreed with some of Hammonds’ comments, “I am responsible to make sure (the) budget complies with the law. I’m not going to accept (the budget) until you comply with the law.”

To clarify its stance, the board voted 6-3 Thursday to ask staff to advertise and specified that the public notice be published by Aug. 20. Board members Shelton Cobb, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham voted against the motion.

Before the board cast its vote, Cooper asked: “This board is instructing us to break state and federal law?”

Board President Hunter Beasley told Cooper that the board is instructing staff to file public notice.

“What I would suggest is that if you’re saying state or federal law is being broken, it might be a good idea to give the specific legislation that is being broken,” Beasley told Cooper.

Staff provided board members a list of their cuts in cited laws or School Board policies that justify the expense. Some issues on the list cite board policies and education-related state and federal laws and run the gamut from adequate training for teachers to compliance with staff-student ratios set by the state.

The list was made available to the board earlier this week, said Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau. The board asked Hammonds to review the list and guide the board on how to proceed before its meeting for final adoption.

Cooper suggested that the board wait to advertise until Hammonds gives them his opinion.

“I can’t see advertising a budget that I see as out of kilter with the law,” Cooper said.

Even after the board’s vote Thursday, Cooper continued to assert his stance that the board has not approved a budget that’s ready for public review.

Trahan said that based on staff comments about not wanting to comply with their vote to advertise, she’d like to see the board direct Beasley to submit the public notice if staff fails to do it. She asked Hammonds if such a directive was proper.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in all my years,” Hammonds said. “It’s never been necessary.”

Trahan asked the board to take a vote and direct Beasley to file public notice if staff doesn’t, though the suggestion only received four votes from Beasley, Trahan, Tehmi Chassion and Tommy Angelle. Board members Greg Awbrey, Mark Babineaux, Bouillion, Cockerham and Cobb voted against.

It’s possible that the board’s budget issues may end up in federal court. The board met in executive session for about five minutes Thursday to discuss a preliminary injunction and federal lawsuit filed by Greg Davis that asks the court to intervene in the board’s budget issue and its handling of any future termination proceedings against Cooper. Davis filed the lawsuit last week and on Monday filed a preliminary injunction asking for a speedier intervention related to the board’s budget. The fiscal year ended June 30. Davis claims the board’s delayed approval of a budget and the cuts they’ve decided to make to it will disproportionately impact the school system’s disadvantaged and minority students. He’s asked the court to step in and force the board to comply with a state law that requires political agencies who don’t adopt a budget before the end of the fiscal year to roll forward into the new one with 50 percent of their prior year’s budget to ensure continual operations.

Davis has asked the court to disqualify two board members — Chassion and Babineaux — from voting in any future potential termination proceedings against Cooper because of their alleged bias against the superintendent.

Davis’ case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Richard Haik, who oversaw the district’s implementation of a consent decree that enabled the district to achieve unitary status in 2006, ending a 41-year-old desegregation lawsuit. The board voted 8-1 Thursday to ask Haik not to recuse himself from the case. Prior to the vote, Beasley reminded members not to disclose what was discussed in executive session. No hearing dates have been set yet.