Enough is enough

by Patrick Flanagan

The agenda for Wednesday's meeting of the Lafayette Parish School Board tells it all: The board has lost sight of its elected purpose.

The agenda for Wednesday's meeting of the Lafayette Parish School Board tells it all: The board has lost sight of its elected purpose.

It's obvious that five members of the Lafayette Parish School Board have become so focused on their personal issues with Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper that they've been rendered blind on any other issue facing the school system. Those members include Tommy Angelle, Greg Awbrey, Mark Allen Babineaux, Tehmi Chassion and Rae Trahan.

It only takes one look at Wednesday's meeting agenda to see the level of dysfunction that has taken hold of the board and its overwhelming desire for the ouster of the superintendent. That desire is illustrated through a range of agenda items like Babineaux's request for an update on the investigation of Cooper. Perhaps Babineaux's memory has slipped, but that investigation was deemed null and void by the board's legal counsel, Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton Jr. Case in point: Since the board's request for said investigation met none of the requirements stipulated by state law - ie., it didn't specify how much would be spent or what would be investigated - Hamilton informed the AG's Office that an investigation was unwarranted. He was right in doing so; the investigation was nothing more than an unwarranted witch hunt of the super. Babineaux also has a follow-up item set for Wednesday's meeting calling for, in his words, an "Update on the resolution purportedly prepared by the District Attorney relieving the District Attorney of duties as General Counsel."

Photo by Robin May

LPSB member Hunter Beasley

That's followed by an introductory item from Board Member Hunter Beasley calling for the selection of a new general counsel to replace the DA's office. The DA's office provides this service to the school system free of charge, but Hamilton's letter to the AG didn't sit well with board members like Babineaux and Awbrey, who since Cooper's arrival in 2012 have made no effort to hide their dislike of his attempt to put Lafayette's mediocre school system on the right path, setting up road blocks at every available opportunity.

The problem with Beasley's resolution, which calls for a board vote to hire Hammons & Sills as general counsel, is that the board already made a decision on a nearly identical resolution at its last meeting, with the measure failing in a 4-4 vote.

"It failed; there was no prevailing side," says Cooper, who spoke with The IND by phone Tuesday morning. "Unless there's some rule we don't know about, we thought it was dead. But [Beasley] seems to think he can bring it up again."

The only difference between Beasley's agenda item, and the nearly identical item seen on the last meeting's agenda on Dec. 4, is that it adds the word interim. According to Robert's Rules of Order - a set of meeting guidelines adhered to, at least in theory, by the school board - once an item has been voted down, it can only be brought back up for reconsideration by someone on the prevailing side of the original vote. Since the Dec. 4 vote had no prevailing side, Beasley's attempt to resurrect the matter is invalid, and as the board's parliamentarian, he should see the conflict between his resolution and the guidelines established by Robert's Rules.

Another item on Wednesday's agenda from Awbrey calls for a revision to the board's Legal Services policy, which in its current form makes the DA's office the board's general legal counsel. The standing policy also gives the DA's office the final say in hiring special legal counsel. Awbrey's revisions will ultimately give all those powers currently held by the DA's office to a majority of the board, thereby giving them final say on what law firm is hired as the board's new general legal counsel.

Did we mention that the DA's legal counsel is free of charge? That definitely won't be the case once a private law firm is brought into the picture.

In a press release issued Tuesday, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce weighed in on the general counsel issue with this statement (emphasis is theirs):

On Friday, December 13, 2013, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors took a position opposing the Lafayette Parish School Board's decision to dismiss the District Attorney as general counsel and to consider replacing the DA with private general counsel, which could mean new costs amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (the DA provides general counsel services at no cost to the school system).

If they move forward with private general counsel, the School Board's actions would unnecessarily shift significant financial resources away from their core educational mission by hastily terminating an arrangement that has been in place for many years.

The Greater Lafayette Chamber believes that the most responsible action is for the School Board to reverse course and engage in a good faith effort to repair its relationship with the District Attorney's office.

Cooper, whose attempt at extending an olive branch by calling for a day-long mediation session went largely ignored by the board on Dec. 4, will make that same attempt on Wednesday by reintroducing his resolution to bring in a mediator, free-of-charge, to help ease tensions between his office and the board.

"It seems like they're being awfully reckless and not paying attention to what they're doing," Cooper says of Wednesday's agenda. "There's just a lot of stuff on this agenda. It's a whole flurry of activity and confusion, and it really speaks to the issue that without committees, this process becomes nothing more than a Wild West show."

Amid all the confusion is one resolution that seems to have escaped the memories of the five members of the anti-Cooper crowd. That resolution passed unanimously on Dec. 4, and calls for the creation of a committee to evaluate and make a recommendation on the hiring of a new general counsel. Yet, based on Wednesday's agenda, it seems the board is less interested in following procedure and more focused on fast-tracking its attempt to hire an outside law firm as the new general counsel, which speculation has it is just one more attempt at Cooper's job.

With so many community leaders coming out in support of Cooper over the last year and repeatedly calling for the board to get it line with his Turnaround Plan, it raises the question: When will enough be enough?