On second thought: Appeals court sides with Cooper after rehearing

by Walter Pierce

"Failing schools require more attention and more work days for their principals or school personnel ..."

File Photo by Robin May

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal released an opinion Wednesday reversing an earlier opinion that affirmed the Lafayette Parish School Board’s reasoning in firing former Superintendent Pat Cooper in November of 2014.

Wednesday’s opinion could set precedent for school reform in Louisiana and, ultimately, have financial ramifications for Lafayette taxpayers: 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, could be due payment for the term of his contract. In sending the case back to the lower court to determine damages due to Cooper, the Third Circuit also assessed another $12,000 in costs to the board.

Cooper was fired by the board after an investigation by outside counsel found that the superintendent had violated several provisions. Cooper appealed to district court in Lafayette, arguing that Act 1 passed by the Legislature more than two years before his termination shifted power away from school boards and to superintendents. The district court sided with the school board, but only on one of the charges: that Cooper exceeded his authority in offering principals at five high-risk schools more pay than their peers.

Read the full Third Circuit decision here.

Cooper appealed to the Third Circuit, which in late November of last year upheld the district court’s ruling. But the court did agree to rehear Cooper’s appeal. That rehearing was set for Jan. 31 of this year, and preceding the rehearing, nine members of the Louisiana Legislature who were in office when Act 1 was approved, including Lafayette Reps. Stuart Bishop and Nancy Landry, filed an amicus brief with the 3rd Circuit in support of Cooper.

In its rehearing opinion, the three-judge Third Circuit panel reversed its decision of last November, opining that “by its plain, clear, and unambiguous language,” Act 1 “provides express legal authority for a superintendent to hire school personnel ...” The Third Circuit said that it “incorrectly applied the law enacted by Act 1, as did the lower court and the Board.”

The victory is bittersweet for Cooper. "I asked God to handle it and he did," he says in an emailed statement to The IND. "It has been an awful ordeal. Seven vindictive members of the Board, by their actions, attempted to ruin my reputation that I had worked over 45 years to have. I forgive them, but it will never be me or the people of Lafayette.

"This case will likely cost the taxpayers almost $500,000 just because Tommy Angelle and his gang of bullies refused to follow the law. Angelle is even on record at a school board meeting stating he knew the law was in place, but he wasn’t going to follow it because he 'thought' it would be overturned. I am so sorry for the citizens of Lafayette."

The opinion also points out that the school board used the same reasoning as Cooper when it offered teachers at a parish-run charter school for high-risk students higher salaries than other teachers:

Failing schools require more attention and more work days for their principals or school personnel ... Here, Dr. Cooper applied the same salary schedule provisions and the same logic in h is hiring of the five principals, yet the Board refused to recognize his authority to do the same when their roles were reversed by Act 1. Thus, we find the Board was incorrect in their interpretation of Act 1, as was the district court in its review of that decision.

...For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the judgment of the district court affirming the Lafayette Parish School Board’s decision to terminate Dr. Pat Cooper, as the Lafayette Parish School District Superintendent of Schools ... and we remand this matter to the district court for consideration of the damages due to Dr. Cooper as a result of the Lafayette Parish School Board’s actions.