The Lafayette Parish School Board is spending less money on education-related matters but wants to hire special legal counsel for an investigation into Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper for unknown reasons and at a cost that has yet to be determined. It's a move Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Holly Boffy calls "frustrating."
Boffy represents the seventh district, which encompasses a large part of Lafayette Parish, and she disagrees with the board’s recent decision to hire a law firm to 'investigate" the super.
The so-called "investigation" of Cooper will take funds away from educating children and is widely viewed as a politically-charged witch hunt of a man already proving successful in his efforts to improve our mediocre school district. ACT scores have risen, and the school system has jumped from a C to a B within only a year of his tenure.
“A large number of people in our state are interested in making progress in education, and this investigation is not the road to progress,” Boffy tells The IND in a phone interview Wednesday. “It is my understanding that there weren’t any reasons cited for the investigation, and at a time when our school system is having to cut back on our budget for services to kids, I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend money on an investigation when there’s not even a reason for it.”
Pointing to state law, Boffy says the board did not follow proper procedure for hiring special counsel, which requires approval of the attorney general’s office, and a resolution specifically stating the reasons for the investigation and how much will be spent. The resolution, introduced by board member Rae Trahan and approved by the board last week, met none of those requirements.
“The best case going forward is to get an opinion from the AG on the process the board is following. They were supposed to start with the AG to begin with, and I hope their request would be denied,” says Boffy. “It all goes back to the point that this board hired a superintendent, the community supports this superintendent, and we’re dealing with tough economic times, so why would the board want to spend, how much, $100,000, $10,000? No one knows. That’s money that could be used for teachers and students in this district. It’s pretty frustrating.”
The fight against Cooper appears to boil down to the board's resistance to Act I of the Louisiana Legislature, which basically gives superintendents more power than the members of the school board, especially when it comes to the hiring and firing of school system employees. The board's beef centers on Cooper hiring principals for low-performing schools to work more hours, and his continued refusal to fire Thad Welch, the assistant to the superintendent for maintenance and transportation, over his lack of a high school diploma.
"The [state] Department [of Education] is going to release some guidelines for complying with Act I through its superintendent's newsletter next week," says Boffy. "There's also a process the department has for ensuring compliance of Act I, and we're going to initiate that process to see what we can do to help mediate that situation. If we go through the compliance process and they still have an issue, then I will work to get this on the BESE agenda to see where we need to go from there."
The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce has also come out against the investigation, issuing a press release late Wednesday urging the board to reconsider the action. The IND spoke Wednesday with Rob Eddy, chairman of the chamber's 32-person board.
Since the board's approval of the investigation last week, Eddy says the chamber has been inundated with phone calls from the business community protesting the action. The chamber's position on the matter, says Eddy, is three-fold.
"First of all, it's not necessary to begin with," notes Eddy. "It's all over an interpretation issue with Act 1. The school board should be reaching out to the superintendent and trying to find common ground. It may not be easy, but a greater effort should be put forth before you start spending an unspecified amount on legal fees. The second component is the form of the resolution, which seems to be deficient and very vague as to what they are even investigating. The third element is that we are here trying to get all the support for the Turnaround Plan we can for our children, and the school board is creating an action that doesn't have a cap on how much might be spent. I've never seen an organization or business saying let's just open up the checkbook on any project, much less this one."
Wednesday marked a week since the board approved hiring the Gretna-based law firm of Grant & Barrow to investigate Cooper, but according to an email The IND received late Wednesday afternoon from Laura Gerdes of the AG's public information division: "The Attorney General’s Office has not yet received that resolution for approval."
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