Turmoil on school board prompts legislative proposal

The brouhaha at a Lafayette Parish School Board meeting Wednesday night that led to the filing of a police complaint is the kind of problem that a state lawmaker says she hopes to address through legislation that could change the way the parish’s schools are governed.

Lafayette police are investigating a simple battery allegation a board member made against the system’s superintendent over an incident during a heated, closed-door executive session.

State Rep. Nancy Landry said she plans to propose legislation in the upcoming session to put before voters an amendment to the state’s constitution. If approved, it would give Lafayette Parish voters the ability to change the School Board governance structure.

“Because it’s not serving our communities and families the way it was supposed to and designed to, I think it’s time to look for other ways to do this,” Landry said. “When something’s not working, the right thing to do is to look for solutions.”

The legislation won’t dictate those solutions, Landry said, but would enable the community to explore other options, then vote on whether they want to adopt them.

Constitutional amendments — even if specific to one parish — require approval by a statewide vote.

“Right now, the constitution limits us to one form of school governance. My bill will provide more options to Lafayette. It’s not going to prescribe one of those options,” she said.

Landry said she envisions a commission of community members that would investigate different governance structures, such as mayor-run school systems or a combination of appointed and elected board members. The commission would then make a recommendation to be voted on by the community.

“I think our community would agree that what we have right now is not working,” Landry said. “ I think that some people will say it’s not working because of the current (board) membership and we have an election coming up and we can fix that in the election. That would also be one of the options. Perhaps, we will get a better board in this election but I would like to have that option in case we don’t.”

She said concerns voiced by constituents about school governance led her to explore the potential legislation, and an incident Wednesday night illustrates why it is needed.

Wednesday night, Lafayette Parish School Board member Tehmi Chassion called Lafayette police, alleging Superintendent Pat Cooper yelled at him and grabbed his arm during an executive session discussion of a demand letter for $200,000 the board received from an insurance consultant hired in June 2013 without a contract.

Cooper told reporters late Wednesday that he was embarrassed by the incident and denied grabbing Chassion, although he said he touched the board member’s arm and asked him not to make demands of school district employees.

It’s up to Chassion whether he wants police to submit the complaint to the City Prosecutor’s Office for further investigation, Lafayette police Cpl. Paul Mouton said. Chassion declined to comment about the incident or say whether he plans to ask the city prosecutor to look into the incident.

In April, Chassion called the Lafayette police to file a complaint against The IND’s reporter, Patrick Flanagan, whom Chassion claimed had confronted him in the men’s restroom during a School Board meeting and “put his hands” on him. The April offense report was sent to the District Attorney’s Office and, after review, was determined not to warrant a charge, District Attorney Mike Harson said Thursday.

Board member Kermit Bouillion wrote in an email Thursday that he didn’t think the incident at Wednesday’s meeting warranted police intervention. Bouillion said he walked out of the executive session because he was disappointed by behavior he witnessed during the closed-door session.

“There was an argument between Cooper, Chassion and (insurance director Mona) Bernard that got very loud. I do not think that it was necessary to call police over an argument,” Bouillion said. “Regardless, I believe both Chassion and Cooper were not very professional last night.”

Tensions between some board members — particularly Chassion and Cooper — have played out publicly at board meetings over the past 12 months. The discord has been mainly centered on some board members’ disagreements about personnel decisions made by Cooper and the authority a state law enacted in July 2012 now gives superintendents over hiring and firing decisions.

“It’s become about grown-up issues instead of the children. It’s really political,” Landry said. “The purpose of removing public education governance from the general purview of the mayor or Legislature or the governor was to remove politics from the process and that’s not what’s happening here. I think we’re seeing highly politicized, petty shenanigans.”

Landry said she also plans to file another piece of legislation this session for another constitutional amendment to change the election cycle for the School Board to the same cycle as the gubernatorial election to help boost voter participation.

“The governance of our schools has been a big concern of my constituents, so I’m researching what we can do to remedy the situation,” Landry said.