by Patrick Flanagan

Let's be clear: The board members seeking an investigation of Superintendent Pat Cooper want him fired.


Monday, June 2, 2014

When Betty Cox became superintendent of the Rapides Parish School System in 1994, it didn't take long before she started stepping on the toes of certain board members - namely the ones who'd become accustomed to using their political sway to their own benefit.

Photos by Robin May

Superintendent Pat Cooper

Much the same happened when Superintendent Pat Cooper arrived in Lafayette Parish in 2012.

Upon taking the job, Cox - like Cooper - soon discovered that board members had a long-standing tradition of telling principals who to hire. Cox also learned that several board members had been abusing the school system's long distance telephone service, racking up charges for hours and hours of personal calls. And one board member, who worked for the school system before being elected, used his position in the special education department to purchase equipment for the school system from a local non-profit for which he served as a board member.

Cox quickly put an end to the abuses, but the board, backed by its attorney at the time, Bob Hammonds - the same Bob Hammonds who now serves as interim general counsel for the Lafayette Parish School Board - responded by terminating her in 1996. Though Cox had three board members who supported her efforts to clean up the school system of its political graft, all it took was a six-vote majority, and she was gone.

Cox, however, fought the board, and eventually her case made it to federal court where she argued the board's decision was based on bias and retribution for her putting an end to some members' long-held abuses of the system. The federal court sided with Cox, writing in its decision: "In sum, the record in the case unfolds like a soap opera. The respective views of the parties were regularly aired out in the print and broadcast media in the Rapides Parish area. One need only make a cursory review of the exhibits and the testimony to get a clear impression of the rancor and deeply held views of the aforementioned school board members prior to the discharge hearing."

Pat Cooper probably has a good idea what Cox went through.

Even from the start in late-2011, four members of the school board already had their minds made up about Cooper: Board member Rae Trahan refused to participate in the numerous interviews held during the selection process for a new superintendent following the retirement of former Superintendent Burnell Lemoine (she did, however, manage one out of town trip to visit another candidate for the job). It wasn't until the board convened to cast its final vote to approve Cooper's hire that Trahan showed her face.

Another case of the board's early resistance came from then-board President Mark Allen Babineaux, who attempted to put a stop to Cooper's superintendency before it ever started. After learning that Cooper couldn't start full-time until May 2012, Babineaux acted behind-the-scenes, and without board approval relayed a message to Cooper through LPSS's then-marketing director that the new superintendent must begin the job starting Jan. 1, 2012. The board's five majority members eventually caught wind of Babineaux's scheme and brought Cooper back into the running for the job.

Cooper's selection did not put an end to his problems with the board.

Like Cox's troubles in Rapides Parish, Cooper's real issues started when he overhauled the maintenance and custodial departments - where for decades employees abusing the system had been status quo. Cooper responded with the hire of Thad Welch as the school system's new maintenance/transportation supervisor, and Welch quickly cleaned house.

The problem: Welch's lack of a high school diploma, which has since become the cause célèbre among Cooper's detractors and the impetus behind an investigation launched last year into alleged misconduct by the superintendent.

The investigation started with a resolution last year from board member Rae Trahan, and was temporarily put on hold because of a recommendation from Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton to the state attorney general. Trahan's resolution to hire the Gretna-based law firm of Grant & Barrow to investigate the superintendent didn't match up with the requirements of state law, primarily because it didn't specify the reasons or give a fixed cost for the probe. So Hamilton, the board's free legal counsel, informed the AG's office that the investigation wasn't warranted. The board responded by terminating its relationship with the DA's office and hiring Hammonds & Sills as its interim legal counsel.

The law firm of Grant & Barrow pulled out of the investigation, saying it did not have time to do the work, but the board pushed forward and received approval from the AG's office to hire Baton Rouge attorney Dennis Shelton Blunt to investigate Cooper. Blunt, a former attorney with Hammonds & Sills, has experience with investigating superintendents.

In 2012, Blunt was hired by the Monroe City School Board to investigate then-Superintendent Kathleen Harris. Though the Lafayette Parish School Board has never officially stated what its investigation will entail, a public records request submitted to Cooper's office by Grant & Barrow shortly before its resignation shows a number of similarities with the Monroe City School Board's investigation of its superintendent, focusing on Harris' handling of personnel matters - much like Cooper's refusal to fire Welch over his lack of a high school diploma and his hiring of several principals of low-performing schools at higher pay rates.

Neither Cox nor Harris (her attorney declined comment and promised to get a message to her) returned calls for this story. Cox eventually obtained her law degree and is now a professor of school law and educational leadership at the University of Tennessee at Martin. (Click here for a May 2009 case study she co-authored for The School Administrator examining the legal battles between superintendents and school boards throughout the country.)

Blunt's investigation for the Monroe City School Board lasted three months, cost the school system more than $58,000, and resulted in nine charges being brought against Harris. A hearing was called by the board, but Harris responded by filing a motion in district court, which eventually made its way to federal court, calling for an injunction based on bias among board members.

The court ultimately ruled against Harris, but not before she received more than $100,000 in a buyout from the school board.
Hammonds' role with the Rapides Parish School Board and its fight with former Superintendent Cox shows how bias can oust a superintendent - exactly what the Lafayette Parish School Board is pushing for in its case against Cooper. This board wants him fired, an underlying motive revealed in a recent letter from Hammonds to the AG's office requesting approval to hire Blunt for the investigation.

"As you are probably aware, school superintendents in Louisiana are hired by their respective school boards and may be fired by those same school boards," writes Hammonds. "Before a superintendent can be terminated, however, he is entitled to written charges and a fair hearing before the board after reasonable notice.' Before a school board determines whether charges should be brought against a superintendent and a hearing should be conducted, it needs to be in a position to conduct an independent investigation. Without the ability to obtain special counsel to conduct such investigation, a school board is powerless to pursue disciplinary action against a superintendent no matter how egregious his/her conduct might be."

From the outset, board members Trahan, Babineaux, Tommy Angelle and Greg Awbrey made it clear they did not want Cooper.
Margaret Trahan, director of the United Way of Acadiana and a founding member of the Lafayette Parish Public Education Stakeholders Council - a diverse group of community stakeholders devoted to bettering education for Lafayette Parish - played a pivotal role in the interview process for a superintendent back in 2011. Trahan never understood why the four board members were against Cooper from the start, saying they did not explain their opposition.

"LaPESC was never involved in the voting for superintendent, but we did recommend three names, one being Dr. Cooper, and five board members voted for Dr. Cooper," says UW's Trahan. "There were also four who didn't, and I never knew why. But Dr. Cooper has since come in and engaged this community in planning in a way that's never been done before. The Turnaround Plan is the result of community task forces and the fact that he made good on his promises. He called those task forces together, got hundreds of people involved, and for the first time in a long time, we have a plan that the community helped create and endorses and he's trying to carry it out."

With two more board members having entered the anti-Cooper camp, the number of potential votes for his termination has risen to six, which means the board has the votes to terminate him. All it needs is for Blunt to come up with something. The investigation is expected to take about three months, and with school board elections in November, time will be of the essence as reform-minded candidates are already lining up to oppose the six members pushing for the probe of the superintendent. (The three board members who support Cooper - Kermit Bouillion, Shelton Cobb and Mark Cockerham - have yet to draw opposition in the upcoming election.)

"If they terminate him, I think the people would be pretty angry," says UW's Trahan. "He has a lot of support in the community by regular people. The people like his ideas; they believe in what he's trying to do, so those board members, I think, see it as a political struggle.

"There would be a lot of anger, and I think the backlash would be pretty huge against those who voted to terminate him," continues Trahan. "There's probably been missteps on both sides, but there's always room to improve the relationship. I don't see the need for an investigation. Mediation. Workshops to build trust. Those steps could be taken. I don't get the feeling that the board members are trying to make it work. I know Cooper has gotten angry and said things he shouldn't, but I definitely don't think it's grounds for termination."

Jason El Koubi, president and CEO of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, also opposes the investigation and is pushing for major changes with the upcoming election season.

"There's a remarkable degree of consensus in the community on what everyone wants," says El Koubi. "The approach that the school board has taken, not just with this investigation, but on several other issues, is unfair, and is damaging to our community. The open-ended approach to investigating Dr. Cooper is irresponsible."

Instead of hiring an outside law firm for a potentially costly endeavor, the board should instead be working with the superintendent to iron out its issues, El Koubi says, also noting that the resolution fails to meet the requirements of state law because the board has refused to clarify the reasons for the investigation. Exacerbating the issue, maintains El Koubi, is the current budget crisis - an estimated $18 million deficit. The investigation will divert much-needed financial resources away from educating students, he says.

"The vast majority of the disagreement has nothing to do with educating our children," says El Koubi. "We've been doing a lot of research, and what works in other communities where they have highly effective school systems all depends on strong board leadership, which means vision, being driven, respectful, informed by data, being accountable to results, and most importantly, being committed to putting students first. Instead, the focus of some our board members has shifted from their appropriate role of governance to management issues, which is the responsibility of the superintendent."

He's right. Act 1, which passed in 2012 just as Cooper took the reigns of the school system, has been at the center of the fight with the school board. And like it or not, Act 1 ultimately transferred powers previously held by school board members, including the authority to hire and fire, into the hands of the superintendents.

Nathan Roberts, a former Lafayette Parish School Board attorney in the '90s who now teaches education law at UL Lafayette, says that despite the controversy surrounding Act 1 - which has been contested on two fronts with both cases awaiting decisions by the state Supreme Court - the law, in some shape or form, will remain.

"Even if Act 1 gets nullified, I think a lot of the components will be put back in the law," says Roberts, adding that the personnel powers granted to superintendents has proven one of the most positive aspects of the law.

"The law is good in a lot of places, especially where you had board members sticking their hands in places where they shouldn't," explains Roberts. "If it stops that part, with board members micro-managing, then it's a good thing. The superintendent is supposed to be your expert, at least until you run into this issue where the board disagrees, and then you have this big fight between the superintendent and the board over whether they have the authority to make a change. And that's not good for anybody. It's not productive for the citizens or the students, and it makes it much harder to pass a tax or to get the people to approve anything if they don't see some positive action."

For now, though, Cooper still has to contend with the possibility that Blunt's investigation will be presented to the board prior to November's elections, and that the board just may make a move for his termination.

Yet, if that were to happen, Cooper, just like Superintendent Cox, can certainly argue bias.

For starters, board member Babineaux, an attorney, tried to derail Cooper's superintendency before it ever started and was targeted in a complaint filed by Cooper with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board for breaching the confidentiality of an executive session held Oct. 16, 2013.

And board member Tehmi Chassion, whose personal distaste for the superintendent has been well documented over the last year and a half, mostly by this publication, phoned the police on Cooper during a school board meeting, alleging the superintendent yelled in his ear, grabbed his shoulder and spun him around in his swivel chair during an executive session. In addition, there is also the matter of Chassion attempting to award Southern Benefit Services a contract as the school system's third party health plan administrator, which would have financially benefited his half-brother, City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin.

For the chamber's El Koubi, November marks the changing point for the school system. "With the election of a new school board just a few months away, I think we have a real opportunity to rally around a common vision," he says.

Hopefully Cooper can hang on until then.