Appeals court upholds Pat Cooper firing

by Walter Pierce

The former Lafayette school superintendent challenged the grounds on which the school board dismissed him two years ago.

Photos by Robin May

Pending an unlikely-to-succeed appeal to the state’s highest court, Dr. Pat Cooper and the Lafayette Parish School System have finally parted ways.

Cooper was fired on Nov. 5, 2014 during a hearing at which the Lafayette Parish School Board found merit in four of five charges leveled against him following a lengthy investigation and months of rancor between Cooper and several board members, voting to terminate his three-year contract with one year remaining.

Two weeks later, Cooper appealed his firing before District Court Judge Patrick Michot in Lafayette, who found merit in only one of the charges against the erstwhile school system administrator: that his unilateral decision to offer higher pay to five hand-selected principals he sought to run the parish’s most low-performing schools without school board approval violated policy and was grounds for termination. Cooper had argued that he hadn’t increased the daily pay of the five principals, but rather had merely offered them a greater number of days annually from which they drew a paycheck. Both the board and Michot didn’t buy the argument, noting that the increased pay — whether attributed to a higher salary or a greater number of paid days per year — affected the school system’s annual budget over which the school board has authority.

Cooper appealed to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, arguing that Judge Michot misapplied Act 1, the 2012 state law that transferred a great deal of school system administrative authority from school boards to superintendents. The appeals court, while noting that the “passage of Act 1 turned the relationship between school boards and their superintendents on its head,” nonetheless upheld Michot’s earlier ruling that the school board was within its rights in terminating Cooper.

“We find that while a superintendent now has expanded power in the operation of school systems, that power is not absolute and is specifically limited by other provisions of Act 1,” appellate Judge Jimmie C. Peters writes for the majority. (Judge John E. Conery dissented among the three-judge panel.) “Thus, while a superintendent may fix salaries, his or her actions cannot violate the salary schedules set up as part of the policy making obligations of a school board.”

More from the decision:

In reaching this conclusion, we find, as obviously did the School Board, that Dr. Cooper was aware of the particulars of the School Board policy as set forth in the Salary Schedule for paying principals, he intentionally violated that policy, and he failed to call his actions to the attention of the School Board until they became an issue. While the superintendent does have expanded powers under Act 1, those powers come with the responsibility of ensuring that the use of those powers do not adversely affect other areas of importance — as in this case, the School System budget.

The 3rd Circuit also agreed to assess all attorney fees for both the district-court and appellate cases incurred by the Lafayette Parish School Board to Cooper, meaning he’s now on the hook for — at the very least — tens of thousands of dollars beyond what he owes his own legal team.