For Cooper, rehearing more about policy vindication than money

by Walter Pierce

But if he prevails before the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal over his November 2014 firing by the Lafayette Parish School Board, the former superintendent could also be in line for a handsome payday.

Photo by Robin May

Pat Cooper, the former Lafayette schools superintendent, could become a precedent-setting case for school board reform in Louisiana. If he prevails in a rehearing before the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal over his November 2014 firing by the Lafayette Parish School Board, he could also be in line for a handsome payday.

The former superintendent, who was hired in December of 2011 and still had a little more than a year on his $190,000-per-year contract when he was canned in 2014, declined comment over the appellate court’s surprising decision released last week (Dec. 29) to rehear his appeal, other than to say, “I put this in God’s hands a long time ago.” Cooper’s attorney, Lane Roy of Lafayette, hasn’t returned a call seeking comment, but he told The Advertiser the appeal is “a major case for Pat Cooper, but it’s even bigger for the education law in Louisiana.”

Roy is referring to Act I, the education reform package passed by the Legislature in 2012 that among other things gave greater power and discretion to superintendents in hiring, firing and personnel decision-making. Cooper embraced Act I right out of the gate, hiring without board approval in early 2012 Thad Welch to serve as district maintenance supervisor. The board voted in the spring of that year to de-fund Welch’s position, setting off a series of skirmishes with the school board that culminated in Cooper’s ouster two years later.

Ultimately, following a lengthy investigation by a board-hired attorney, Cooper was fired based on 15 violations of board policy. He filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the board soon after his firing, and in 2015 District Judge Patrick Michot sided with the board on only one of the charges — that Cooper’s decision to pay principals at low-performing schools more than their peers impacted a school system budget under the discretion of the school board. Cooper appealed Michot’s ruling, but in late November the 3rd Circuit upheld it. But as attorney Roy notes in The Advertiser article, a strong dissent by Judge John Connery, who opined that Cooper’s termination by the board “was based more on politics and less on law” gave Roy hope that asking for a rehearing might be granted. On Dec. 29 it was.

If Cooper prevails at the 3rd Circuit the LPSB could certainly — and probably would — appeal to the state Supreme Court, but in the interim it would be a victory for Cooper’s interpretation of Act I, and it could serve as a precedent to embolden other superintendents in Louisiana to make decisions historically left to school boards. It could also mean a more than $200,000 pay day for Cooper, who is seeking payment through the term of his contract.

The rehearing is scheduled tentatively for Jan. 25. That three-judge appellate panel will include Connery and, worth noting, will not include Judge Jimmy Genovese, one of two judges to vote against Cooper in the opinion released in late November. (Genovese was sworn in as a state Supreme Court justice this week.) However, the other judge who sided with the lower court and against Cooper in November, Jimmie Peters, will be on the rehearing panel.