LPSB: 'you scratch my back ...'

by Patrick Flanagan

"Everything this majority on the board is doing is a joke ... a bad one, but still a joke."

Several members of the Lafayette Parish School Board faced fines - some exceeding $1,000 - for excessive absences from meetings and workshops in 2013, but in an effort to wipe the slate clean and avoid a payout, not to mention a conflict of interest, the board devised an "I'll vote for yours if you vote for mine" scheme during last week's meeting.

According to an attendance list prepared by external auditors Kolder, Champagne, Slaven and Co., board members Greg Awbrey, Tommy Angelle, Mark Allen Babineaux, Tehmi Chassion and Rae Trahan all faced fines for violating the board's "Excessive Meeting Absences" policy. Board members are allowed to miss up to five meetings a year, including regular, special and committee meetings and workshops. A $100 fine is levied for each unexcused absence logged thereafter.

"I'll vote for yours if you vote for mine," said LPSB member Tommy Angelle before a vote last week to relieve several members, including Angelle, of fines for excessive absences from meetings and workshops in 2013.

The potential fines included $1,400 for Awbrey (19 absences), $1,300 for Angelle (18 absences), $1,100 for Trahan (16 absences), $600 for Chassion (11 absences) and $100 for Babineaux (six absences).

The board's policy requires excused absences be submitted in writing to the board president, who at the time of the violations was board member Shelton Cobb. According to Cobb, who spoke Monday with The IND, a majority of the excuses were submitted in December, despite many of the members having exceeded the allowable absences as far back as the summer.

When the issue came up during last week's meeting, Cobb's successor as president, board member Hunter Beasley, didn't seem too concerned with the excessive policy violations of his fellow members, saying "If the board would just approve the excuses ... that would wipe the slate clean as far as those absences go."

Excluding Cobb, that didn't raise any protests from Beasley's fellow board members, especially those in violation of the absence policy.

"I think the excuses are valid. We're all grown ups, so I move we rule on these being excused," Angelle recommended during the meeting.

Yet, to avoid a potential conflict of interest, Trahan offered this idea: The board vote separately for each member facing fines to have their absences excused, thereby allowing those in violation of the policy to vote on the issue except when their name was called.

LPSB member Rae Trahan's proposal last week helped her avoid a fine of $1,100 for logging too many unexcused absences from meetings and workshops in 2013.

So for example, Trahan was allowed to vote in favor of excusing the absences of Angelle, Awbrey, Chassion and Babineaux. But when her absences were voted on, she abstained. Angelle, Awbrey, Chassion and Babineaux all followed suit, voting to excuse the absences of everyone but themselves.

"I'll vote for yours if you vote for mine," Angelle said jokingly before the voting commenced.

The sole board member voting against Trahan's idea was Cobb.

"It was just a big joke for them, the ruling class on the board," says Cobb. "All of their excuses were submitted at the last minute after they were criticized publicly for so many excuses. Everything this majority on the board is doing is a joke ... a bad one, but still a joke."

Though Trahan and co. may think themselves clever for side-stepping a direct conflict of interest in excusing their absences, the fact that those who violated the policy were even allowed to vote at all, despite not voting for themselves, still constitutes a conflict, one that was summed up perfectly with Angelle's comment: "I'll vote for yours if you vote for mine."