Big payday looms for Lafayette School Board after Supreme Court refuses case

November 1, 2017

A Louisiana Supreme Court decision in the case of former Lafayette School Superintendent Pat Cooper could prove costly for the parish school system.

The Louisiana Supreme Court refused last week to revisit a May appellate ruling that the School Board “acted arbitrarily and capriciously” when it terminated Cooper in 2014. The high court’s decision could put the School Board on the hook to pay Cooper hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost salary and attorney fees.

Cooper said Tuesday he will seek $390,000 in attorney fees and lost salary, as well as a yet-to-be-determined amount in damages. A 15th Judicial District Court judge will have final say over the award, though it’s not clear when.

Cooper estimated the School Board’s own legal fees to be between $300,000 and $500,000 based on his knowledge of legal contracts during his two-year tenure.

“They could be coming up close to a $1 million just because they were being political,” Cooper said.

School Board President Dawn Morris did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment on the issue.

The School Board terminated Cooper’s contract with a year remaining based on four charges, three of which district Judge Patrick Michot rejected. Michot upheld the charge that Cooper improperly set salaries in excess of the School Board’s schedule when hiring principals at five failing schools.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal initially agreed with Michot on the salary issue, but later reversed itself under the provisions of a 2012 law known as “Act 1.” The law shifted authority over certain personnel matters from elected School Board members to superintendents.

In this case, the appellate court found, the superintendent could pay the principals the School Board’s prescribed daily rate on the basis of a full year, or 244 work days, without prior School Board approval. The School Board’s salary schedule establishes the number of days elementary, middle and high school principals can be paid for, with high school principals working the most at 224 days.

In addition to finding Cooper had authority to hire “by the year” under Act 1, the appellate court ruling noted the School Board had allowed teachers at a Lafayette charter school for at-risk students – which the court did not name – to receive compensation for 244 work days prior to the new law.

“Dr. Cooper applied the same salary schedule provisions and the same logic in his hiring of five principals, yet the Board refused to recognize his authority to do the same when their roles were reversed by Act 1,” the ruling states.

Cooper said he wants his case to lead to changes in how school boards are chosen — that is, he wants to do away with elected school boards altogether.

“School boards tend to draw people who just want to get into politics,” he said.

Cooper said he is actively lining up support from lawmakers, parent groups and businesses to get rid of elected of school boards, although he acknowledged it could take a few years to make it happen.

The Louisiana constitution requires the legislature to “create parish school boards and provide for the election of their members.” That wording means a constitutional amendment approved by statewide voters is likely necessary to effect the change Cooper is seeking, said state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Appel said he agrees “there is far too much politics in education,” and that Cooper’s idea is worth looking at. But Appel said it’s difficult to fully consider it without a proposal for something to replace elections.

“It’s absolutely appropriate to look at the structure of the governance of education, but to go as far as to say get rid of elected school boards could be a stretch,” Appel said.