Where it all started: The Chassion/Cooper divide

by Patrick Flanagan

The embattled relationship between Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper and board member Tehmi Chassion was not always so.

The embattled relationship between Lafayette Parish Schools Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper and board member Tehmi Chassion was not always so.  By Patrick Flanagan

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Photo by Robin May

Better days: Chassion, center, was part of positive change on the board,
pictured here with fellow "Gang of Five" members, from left, Shelton Cobb,
Kermit Bouillion, Mark Cockerham and Hunter Beasley.

Chassion, in fact, played a pivotal role in Cooper's selection a little more than a year ago.

The obvious break with the sup and his turnaround plan came with the start of the new year, when Chassion launched what would quickly turn into an aggressive campaign against Cooper over his hiring (and eventual refusal to fire) Thad Welch, allegedly because he lacked a high school diploma.

Last year's excitement over the arrival of a new superintendent has since faded, and for the most part 2013 has been defined by a non-stop fight between those who back Cooper, and those, like Chassion, who don't.

To believe Thad Welch is really at the center of the fight between Chassion and the superintendent is to only scratch the surface of a much deeper story, one that traces back more than a year.

Shortly after Cooper took the helm of the school system, it didn't take long before he began laying the foundation for his turnaround plan, starting with the poorest performing school in the district, Northside High, which at the time boasted the lowest academic performance scores and the highest dropout rate.

Cooper started by bringing veteran educator Melinda Voorhies - a longtime basketball coach - out of retirement to take over as the school's principal in February 2012. Voorhies hit the ground running, quickly setting out to overhaul the school's approach to discipline and redefine what was expected of its students.

For Voorhies, one of the biggest hurdles she faced came from Chassion, initially over his possession of a grand master key, which granted him all-hours access to Northside and its facilities.

"Fairly soon after arriving, I became aware that Mr. Chassion had keys to the [Northside] gyms and also a grand master key, a key that can get into all of our buildings," Cooper tells IND Monthly in a recent phone interview. "He told us they were going in and practicing for his daughter's basketball team."

The problem, says Cooper: "No one knew when and how the gyms were being used. As a whole, it appeared by virtue of his being a school board member, Tehmi Chassion was getting some things of value or favor that the ordinary citizen could not obtain."

According to documents received by IND Monthly, Chassion obtained his master key - based on orders from former Deputy Superintendent Lawrence Lilly - from the district locksmith on March 30, 2011, granting him access to all school district facilities.

"This came to a head because Ms. Voorhies said, No more,' and told Tehmi he couldn't be using Northside's gyms anymore," says Cooper. "She wanted it stopped because of the liability and potential of theft and misuse and injury. There were even reports of copies of the keys being distributed to various people. Reportedly in some cases there were damages, trash left to be picked up, dressing room property broken into, items stolen, but no one seemed to know how it was all happening,"

Cooper says on one occasion Chassion even went so far as to make himself at home inside Voorhies' office and was found using the principal's telephone. Enough was enough for Voorhies, and from March 15-21, at her request, the entire school, including her office, was re-keyed at a cost of $6,000 to the school system. On March 21, Chassion was called to the school for a meeting with Cooper, Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau, Northside coach James Simmons, board president Shelton Cobb, and Kyle Bordelon, LPSS director of planning and facilities.

According to a document from that meeting, in which the board member was required to turn over his grand master key, LPSS locksmith Ricky Andrus states: "I ... am verifying that I was directed by my immediate supervisor, Mr. Tracy Patin as per the request of Mr. Lawrence Lilly, Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources and Operations to make a grand master key for Mr. Tehmi Chassion. I gave Mr. Patin the grand master key who in turn gave the key to Mr. Lilly."

The application Chassion submitted shows the master key would be used for year-round, anytime access to all the gymnasiums in the school system for both youth and adult league basketball, including AAU and Lafayette City Parish Recreation Basketball teams. Such access typically comes with fees, proof of a $1 million minimum liability insurance policy, and signatures of the principals whose gyms would be used.

Chassion was granted the key, despite his failure to obtain liability insurance, or obtain signatures from principals, and instead stated on the fee checklist portion of the application: "NO FEE - Intergovernmental Agreement."

Yet, according to an email from LPSS Planning and Facilities Director Kyle Bordelon, sent to Cooper on June 28, AAU basketball teams "are not a
part of, or covered by, LCG Parks & Recreation," meaning the intergovernmental agreement cited by Chassion never existed.

A little more than a month later, as Cooper began prepping the board on his plan for Northside's reconstitution, Chassion, for the first time, used the hire of Thad Welch as a bargaining chip, nearly six months before going public with the alleged issue.

Following is a statement by Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau, signed March 12, 2013, recounting an exchange between Cooper and Chassion following an introductory discussion on Northside's reconstitution during the board's May 16, 2012 meeting:

[Chassion] walked into [Cooper's] office. I was in the office gathering my things to go home because this was my area of work as well. Mr. Chassion began to speak to [Cooper] about the proposal and he seemed agitated with the proposal and idea about reconstituting Northside.

[Chassion] said, Pat if you do this, man, you will be costing me 500 to 600 votes. These are my friends; I have a lot of respect for these teachers.' I was stunned by not only what Mr. Chaisson [sic] said but his demeanor and the tone of his voice was threatening. [Chassion] went on to say, If you don't reconsider I will have to bring up Mr. Thad Welch and his qualifications issue.'

Despite Chassion's objections behind closed doors, he would go on to vote in favor of the school's reconstitution several weeks later, thus keeping Welch and his "qualifications issue" under his hat for nearly six more months.

The final push for Chassion likely came last fall as the board was preparing to choose a new group health plan provider [see "Risky Business," the April cover story in IND Monthly's sister publication ABiz]. Cooper's refusal to look the other way as Chassion attempted to violate state law by pushing for a company represented by his half-brother, City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin, was likely the final straw, and the reason the Thad Welch issue has dominated board meetings throughout 2013.

"I think the key issue was a turning point for Tehmi, and after Northside's reconstitution, things just kept going downhill between us," says Cooper. "That got even more of a boost with the insurance issue. We haven't had good communication ever since, all because we don't operate from the standpoint of pleasing people politically anymore."

March 15-21, 2012
Northside High, in its entirety, is re-keyed, including the principal's office. This cost the school system $6,000.
March 21, 2012**
LPSS officials meet with Chassion to discuss facilities access policy and to request return of grand master key.

May 16, 2012
Following the board's discussion of Northside's reconstitution, Cooper was aggressively approached by Chassion, according to a statement submitted March 12, 2013, by Assistant Superintendent Sandra Billeaudeau. She writes: "[Chassion] said, Pat if you do this man you will be costing me 500 to 600 votes. These are my friends; I have a lot of respect for these teachers.' I was stunned by not only what Mr. Chassion said but his demeanor and the tone of his voice was threatening. He went on to say, If you don't reconsider I will have to bring up Mr. Thad Welch and his qualifications issue.'"

June 6, 2012
The board, including Chassion, vote unanimously in favor of reconstituting Northside High, meaning all teachers and staff would be required to reapply for their jobs. Absent from that meeting were board members Rae Trahan and Greg Awbrey.

Sept. 5, 2012
Chassion fails to recuse himself from the group health plan selection, despite his half-brother Brandon Shelvin having a financial stake in the outcome of the board's vote through his affiliation with businessman Wayne Elmore's Southern Benefit Services. Chassion even seconded a substitute motion by board member Hunter Beasley that would have awarded the contract to SBS.

Jan. 27, 2013
During the annual LPSS Social Studies Fair, the actions of Chassion and an unnamed brother - it's unclear whether the brother mentioned by all four volunteers was Tony Chassion Jr. or City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin - prompt four statements by volunteers detailing the bully tactics of the board member.

Feb. 2, 2013
"Call who you have to call, or do what you have to do, I'm not leaving," shouted Chassion after receiving a technical foul while coaching his daughter's team in a youth girls league basketball game. Chassion was eventually forced to leave the premises. For the full story see our Feb. 26 blog, "Tisk tisk Tehmi."

April 3, 2013
Six board members, including Chassion, vote to reprimand Cooper over his hiring of Thad Welch. Before the vote, however, Chassion falsely accuses an IND Monthly reporter of simple battery, an account that was debunked by a lone witness.