Cover Story

Hold Them Accountable

by Walter Pierce

It's time this community rallies behind Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper and insists our students come before special interests.

Every headline is a small cut against us, part of a mounting injury jeopardizing our last and best chance to get public education right in Lafayette.

"Cooper under investigation" (The Advertiser)

"Cooper investigation could be costly for Lafayette" (The Advocate)

"Dr. Pat Cooper Fires Back" (KLFY)

"School board mum on probe" (The Advertiser)

"An Ongoing Dispute at the Lafayette Parish School Board Comes to an End" (KATC)

"Lafayette superintendent says board may try to fire him" (The Advocate)

"Lafayette Parish School Board Reprimands Superintendent Pat Cooper In 6 to 3 Vote" (KPEL)

Why our last and best chance? Because we've never had a superintendent like Dr. Pat Cooper before and we're not likely to get one again after what has transpired the last several months.

What must they think when they see the headlines - the corporate executive eying Lafayette for a new branch office or headquarters, the young family looking to relocate to a bustling economy, the college graduate, the retail chain? What, for that matter, will the next batch of candidates for superintendent think about Lafayette? (We won't have Cooper forever, and frankly we're amazed he has lasted this long.) Would highly qualified candidates ever consider subjecting themselves to the frustration and indignity Cooper has withstood for the last several months?

"How are the schools?" is one of the first things anyone looking to relocate asks about a community. What is our response? Well, we're rated a B - a grade we climbed to only recently after years mired at C - in a state that forever scrapes bottom for educational achievement in the U.S., and our school board is at the superintendent's jugular on a routine basis.

We will not be one of the most affluent, economically vibrant parishes in the state for long if we don't turn our school system around and make it commensurate with our standing statewide in every other measure of desirability. Cooper has a detailed plan to do it, yet he is checked at every turn by a school board acting outside its legal scope, plagued by parochialism and beholden to special interests that care only about buttering their own bread at taxpayers' expense.

But the effect of our school board's inability to coexist with a superintendent who clearly enjoys wide support in the community is internal as well. Voters soundly rejected a property tax in 2011 for much-needed construction and repairs to our aging school buildings.

Fair enough. That's democracy. But it had been the hope of many in the wake of the tax's failure that by hiring Cooper and demonstrating competent stewardship of our school system, the board could instill in voters a confidence that it is capable of wisely managing the dollars generated by such a tax. Cooper, who seriously and publicly considered asking voters to approve a much more modest tax proposal for facilities and maintenance this fall or next spring, has all but ceased such talk. This is of little surprise. Consider a recent comment posted at to a story about the board's vote to hire an outside law firm to investigate "allegations" made against Cooper - allegations that Cooper's detractors on the board have been infuriatingly but not surprisingly vague about: "It's criminal the way these clowns act. I can't wait for my kids to get out of school in Lafayette. And in no way shape or form will I EVER support a property tax and give my hard earned $$$ away to these clowns to spend at their discretion. What an embarrassment to Lafayette they are."

In an editorial before that (failed) tax proposition, this newspaper expressed support - in concept - for the tax but suggested the school system demonstrate competency before voters give it $1 billion. So much for that. If we think even a modest tax proposition will fly with voters bombarded by a fusillade of negative headlines involving the LPSS, we're kidding ourselves. So, it's butler buildings, leaky roofs and wheezing A/Cs for the foreseeable future - just one more set of barriers to moving our school system to an A via Cooper's turnaround plan.

For the record, the "clowns" who voted to investigate Cooper - the same board members who have coalesced into an impediment to progress by routinely and unnecessarily throwing wrenches into our school system's gears - are Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Tehmi Chassion and Rae Trahan.

Many if not most of us in the community, even parents of children in the public school system, know only a little if anything at all about Cooper's plan, "100 % In, 100 % Out," but we can divine from its title a simple goal: get every child ready for an education and make sure every child graduates with one. We're already seeing, this early, results of the superintendent's vision for our middling school system, the climb from C to B during the last term notwithstanding. In the past, the LPSS averaged about 550 dropouts per year, yet "only" about 200 kids dropped out during the last school year. This is not an anomaly; programs such as the NP Moss Preparatory Academy, a Cooper initiative that diverts students at high risk of expulsion into a customized educational environment, have proven track records - programs our superintendent implemented to great success in other school districts he managed in the past. That's why we hired him. He has a stellar résumé. He gets things done.

We would like to see the dropout number reduced to near zero. Pat Cooper can do it, with community support and a school board willing to invest in him the accountability and expectations any chief executive officer assumes upon hire. Cut him loose and let him go.

He's capable.

If you're unfamiliar with the plan, consider the broad swath of stakeholders in our community who have inspected it and support it, who attend school board meetings and lobby the board to look past its petty differences with Cooper and get with the plan: United Way of Acadiana, 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette, Citizens Actions Council, Concerned Citizens for Good Government, Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce, State of Greater Black Lafayette, The705, UL Lafayette, the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office, the Pugh Family Foundation, the Upper Lafayette Economic Development Foundation.

Who comprises this diverse collection of groups, known collectively as the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council, or LaPESC? Old and young, male and female, black and white, Republican and Democrat, professionals, educators, retirees, small business owners, corporate executives, liberals, conservatives and moderates - our friends, relatives and neighbors. People we trust. People who have the best interests of our community at heart. Us.

Where is the opposition coming from? Near the front of the line are some within the school system for whom public employment has merely been a job or personal cash cow, particularly within the rank and file of the maintenance and custodial departments where double dipping and slacking remain endemic. This, at bottom, is why Cooper's hire of Thad Welch was such an issue - not because of Welch's personal educational attainments (or lack thereof), but rather because Welch began to systematically address systemic malfeasance. At Cooper's direction, he was upsetting the apple cart, so to speak, on taxpayers' behalf.

A vocal minority of public school teachers also opposes our superintendent, as it does any change to the status quo. God bless them; they do the Lord's work. Teachers may be the most sensitive to changes in strategy, yet they don't necessarily see the wider battlefield from their position in the trenches. We urge teachers to give Dr. Cooper time to effect his plan, and to remember that most of the downward pressure on their essential profession is coming via state reform mandates from Baton Rouge, not from the central office in Lafayette.

It is imperative that our school board members be mindful of changes to state law - changes that have transformed their job from an old-style "police jury" system of dispensing favors via jobs and public contracts for private cronies and toward what school boards should be: essentially a board of directors that approves policy, makes sure the corporation, in this case our public school system, is fiscally sound and lets the chief executive, i.e. the superintendent, oversee management.

Coincidentally, the 2012 legislative session that produced Act I, the linchpin of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reform, became law during Cooper's first year at the helm of our school system. Roughly one third of the law pertains to school boards, and it's worth reminding the public and the board of one of the broadest and most profound strokes of the law, which "requires local school boards to delegate authority for personnel decisions to the local superintendent." In other words, the superintendent, not the board, now has discretion in hiring, firing and transfers. It wasn't always that way, and this change in law has empowered our superintendent to, for example, reconstitute the faculties at failing schools and make adjustments to principals' hours and compensation - decisions some on the board who clearly care more about their political fortunes than the children they serve have fought. Illegally. We understand this change has flummoxed some school board members, about half of whom were just halfway through their first terms when the law went into effect, stripping them of some power. But it's time to adjust, to move on. This newspaper doesn't agree with much in Jindal's reform plan. But empowering superintendents, especially competent supers like Pat Cooper, is the right course.

We applaud Dr. Cooper for sticking it out. We don't deserve his service after what some on our school board have subjected him to over the last several months. We're more than a year away from school board elections, and it's our sincere desire that qualified, reform-minded candidates will step up to challenge the re-election bids of the board's regressive members - again: Angelle, Awbrey, Babineaux, Chassion and Trahan. No one should just walk into office, especially those do-nothings.

To those potential candidates: You will have resources. You will have support.

But the effort will take more heavy lifting than a few qualified candidates - candidates, we hope, who seek public office for the public good and are willing to invest the considerable time necessary to do the job honorably and correctly (as opposed to missing dozens of meetings and workshops because they're "just too busy" with other things and, consequently, attending meetings uninformed.) A position on the school board doesn't pay much. It's a "part-time" job. But it's damn important.

Four school board members know this. Kudos to board President Shelton Cobb, Vice President Hunter Beasley, Kermit Bouillion and Mark Cockerham, who have served as a bulwark against the other board members' parliamentary shenanigans and who clearly recognize this last, best chance to put Lafayette on a trajectory toward sustained success in public education.

Consider this a call to action to everyone. Contact the rep in your district. Urge him or her to support Dr. Cooper and the turnaround plan. Same with civic and business groups. The school board members who are stymieing progress must be held accountable, now and at the ballot box next fall. They need to know we're watching and taking notes.

If ever there were an issue that can and should bridge Lafayette's diverse economic, cultural and political divides it is this. Getting public education right isn't a conservative or liberal objective, a black or white interest. No matter which direction you lean, we can all lean in together and lift up our public schools. Let's get to work.