Long-suffering superintendent canned amid epic board dysfunction.
Cooper fatigue? Us too.
It’s difficult to say exactly when relations between the talented, capable and at-times mercurial administrator and a school board that once supported him began their inexorable slide toward enmity and rancor, but slide they did. The timeline of Cooper’s ignominious demise can be traced at least back to 2013, so by the time the ashen-faced board voted 7-2 to fire him at the end of an Inquisition-esque two-day hearing on Nov. 6, most of his supporters had resigned themselves to this cruel fait accompli.
To be sure, Cooper had his detractors outside the board: namely a small but vocal group of retired teachers and public-ed advocates. They were persistent. They were articulate. And they created a buffer of respectability between the public and a board that often acted irresponsibly and out of personal hostility. Although Cooper’s supporters — especially, but not limited to, Gary McGoffin, Greg Davis, Margaret Trahan, outgoing board members Kermit Bouillion, Shelton Cobb and Mark Cockerham; the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce and the various groups comprising the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders’ Council — held on until the end, it wasn’t enough to alter Cooper’s fate.
Here’s how 2014 unfolded:
JANUARY — Replacing Shelton Cobb as LPSB’s president, Hunter Beasley leads the board into what will become a year consumed by non-education related issues and frequent battles with Cooper.
FEB. 3 — Attorneys for Rina Tikia, the insurance consultant handpicked by Beasley without board approval, submits a letter of demand claiming she’s owed $200,000, despite never having signed a contract with the board. The board refuses the demand.
FEB. 5 — Board member Tehmi Chassion calls the police with far-fetched claims of being manhandled by Cooper during executive session. The charges never stick.
MARCH 12 — A federal investigation is launched into the LPSB’s insurance-renewal process, putting a spotlight on Chassion and Beasley for their roles in pushing suspect insurance plans for the system. The investigation also involves Beasley’s hand-picked insurance consultant, Tikia, and her alleged attempt to bribe certain board members with posh seats to New Orleans Saints games amid the 2013 selection process for the school system’s insurance provider.
APRIL 11 — Despite a state law requiring public bodies to provide a list of reasons and an estimated cost before hiring a special legal counsel, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office approves the LPSB’s request to hire an outside attorney to investigate Cooper.
JUNE 18 — Cooper receives his annual evaluation, graded on an eight-point scale with eight being “distinguished” and zero meaning “unsatisfactory.” The results are almost laughable as 63 zeroes are doled out by five of his biggest antagonists on the board.
AUG. 5 — A federal lawsuit by Cajundome Director Greg Davis attempting to put the kibosh on the Cooper investigation is filed.
AUG. 20 — After a mid-morning meeting with Dennis Blunt, the board’s special investigating attorney, a highspirited Cooper addresses about 1,000 people gathered inside the Cajundome Convention Center for ABiz’s annual Top 50 Private Companies Luncheon telling the crowd he felt good about his interview with Blunt. He shouldn’t have.
AUG. 27-29 — During election qualifying, all nine LPSB seats are contested with a crowded field of 20 candidates — a testament to the public’s growing distaste with the discord between the board and the super.
AUG. 29 — A lawsuit is filed by a former school system employee against District 7 board member Mark Cockerham challenging his residency in the district. Cockerham will later vacate the seat but is able to (unsuccessfully) seek re-election.
SEPT. 11 — The board votes 6-3 to accept a series of charges presented by investigating attorney Blunt, paving the way for a disciplinary hearing and Cooper’s termination.
SEPT. 15 — Cooper’s six-month fight over the budget — including 19 meetings, countless hours and dozens of redrafts by Cooper and staff — comes to an end as the board bullishly pushes through its plan for a fiscal year that was already two months in. Despite having a gross surplus of dollars — $73.6 million — stashed away in its rainy day fund, the board, ignoring numerous alternatives presented by Cooper, instead hatches a hair-brained plan for balancing the school system’s record $23.5 million deficit by explicitly targeting the district’s lowest performing schools, the ones considered at-risk with students mostly coming from our parish’s most economically distressed neighborhoods.
SEPT. 16 — The lawsuit from Greg Davis and attorney Gary McGoffin (whois also The IND’s attorney) is dismissed by U.S. District Judge Richard Haik. The suit, says Haik, may be valid, just not in federal court, adding that it also should’ve come from Cooper, not McGoffin and Davis. Yet, despite the ruling, Haik does call out the board for its actions, saying they’ve set a “poor example” over the last year.
OCT. 2 — Given an opportunity to address a crowd of several hundred gathered for ABiz’s annual Women Who Mean Business awards luncheon, Cooper uses the opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of the upcoming school board elections. In one of his classic slips of the tongue, Cooper publicly comes out in support of Erica Williams, Tehmi Chassion’s challenger in District 4. In describing the political forces at work in the district, Cooper makes reference to Lafayette’s “black mafia” — a comment that would lead to a fury over the next few weeks and countless headlines and letters to editors.
OCT. 6 — Cooper takes the fight for his job and the budget to district court with an unsuccessful lawsuit calling for the court-ordered disqualification of board members Mark Allen Babineaux, Tehmi Chassion and Hunter Beasley from his upcoming disciplinary hearing. The suit alleges bias and includes a long list showing examples of why each board member would have personal issues against Cooper.
NOV. 4 — The long-awaited election to decide LPSB’s future for the next five years arrives. The day ends with the election of seven new school board members; voters send only two incumbents, Chassion and Tommy Angelle, back to the board in 2015.
NOV. 5 — Cooper’s disciplinary hearing comes to an end after a long day, with the board leaving its final vote for the next day. In all, the two-day process saw about 10 grueling hours worth of witness testimonies and deliberations.
NOV. 6 — The writing had been on the wall for months that this day was coming: Cooper’s last as superintendent. It came in a 7-2 late-night vote with the board calling for an immediate termination of his contract.
NOV. 10 — In finding Cooper’s temporary replacement, the board goes with longtime school system administrator Burnell LeJeune. In an unexpected but welcome move, the board decides to leave the job of picking a permanent superintendent for the new board coming in January.
NOV. 18 — Cooper files a petition in district court accusing the board of wrongful termination and asking that he either be given his job back or be paid the final year of his contract. The petition says Cooper was “terminated in an arbitrary and capricious fashion for political reasons and reasons of vindictiveness.”
NOV. 24 — In an open letter to the community, Cooper vows to remain in Lafayette and help further the parish’s goals for public education.