School Board could meet to clarify investigation into complaints

— Board members could be called on soon to talk about what work a law firm will be asked to perform when it looks into complaints about the superintendent, Lafayette Parish School board President Shelton Cobb said Thursday.

The School Board voted 5-4 during its July 17 meeting to hire the Gretna firm, Grant and Barrow, as special counsel to investigate complaints about superintendent Pat Cooper, but the board did not provide specific information related to the complaints.

School boards must receive approval from the Attorney General’s office for resolutions to hire special counsel and must show a necessity for the legal expense, which could range from $100 to $175 per hour based on the attorney’s experience.

“They seem to have an open, carte-blanche attitude about what they want to come in and look for,” said Cobb. “We need to establish some perimeters instead of letting it be an open-ended thing — as to how and how much it’s going to cost.”

Cobb said those questions will be answered before the resolution is sent to the Attorney General’s office.

Late Wednesday, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce denounced the board’s plan to hire a law firm to launch an investigation and called the resolution “unnecessary” and “vague.” The chamber said the board’s focus has been diverted from education to management issues that are Cooper’s responsibility and it urged the board to work with Cooper.

“We cannot stand by quietly if the School Board chooses to divert much-needed financial resources from our children to legal fees,” the Chamber said in a statement.

Board member Rae Trahan proposed the resolution, which also received support from four other board members last week: Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux and Tehmi Chassion. The resolution did not specify the complaints.

In prior interviews, Trahan and other board members have talked about ongoing disputes between Cooper and some board members over personnel issues that center on interpretation of Act 1 and board policy.

The new state law, Act 1, which took effect last year, has faced numerous judicial challenges and remains under review.

While Act 1 presents challenges as to the changing roles of the board and superintendent, “a school system at war with itself over administrative matters is unjustly turning its focus away from students and the district’s educational goals,” the chamber’s statement read. “Such division further lessens trust and confidence in the public school system and deters new business investment in the area.”

More amicable options are available for the board to address its questions about the shifting roles in school governance related to Act 1, said Margaret Trahan, chair of the chamber’s education division.

“I think we all want clarity, but there’s a less confrontational way to acquire it,” she said.

Last week, Cooper suggested that his attorney and an attorney with the firm that’s the board’s current special counsel help sift through the issues and guide future policy to clarify the changed roles of the board and superintendent. Cooper asked that the board’s executive committee make a recommendation based on his proposal. Last week, Cobb said the executive committee only meets at the recommendation of the board. Cobb said Thursday because the board’s next meeting isn’t until Aug. 7, he’d like to call a special board meeting to begin the process.