Some called it a “miscommunication.” Others went a step further and deemed it “misinformation.” But the events leading up to a heated Lafayette Parish School Board meeting Tuesday night, at which the board voted to widen the superintendent candidate field from 10 to 11 applicants, were nothing less than “troubling,” says board attorney Jimmy Simon.
Dr. Pat Cooper, one of 10 superintendent applicants selected by the board to be interviewed for the district’s top administrative slot, confirmed last week that if selected for the job he would be unable to start full-time until May 2012, five months later than the start date outlined when the board advertised for the position.
When he learned of the potential conflict, Board President Mark Babineaux, who also sits on the three-member Superintendent Selection Committee, called fellow committee member Tommy Angelle and school board Vice President Shelton Cobb to meet over what to do with the latest news. Cobb doesn’t sit on the super selection committee, but because the third committee member, school board member Hunter Beasley, was out of state, Cobb was called in Beasley’s place.
From the office of LPSS Marketing Director Angie Simoneaux, Babineaux called board attorney Simon for advice on how to proceed.
“The word disqualification remained in the back of my mind,” Babineaux said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Mr. Angelle and myself both felt that it was obvious because it started on Jan. 1, not any time later, and the fact that if we make an exception then we should possibly have to reopen the application process. Others might have submitted their application had they known we would make an exception.”
Simon, however, said in a later email to board members that the decision wasn’t Babineaux’s to make.
“I told Mark B at that time that an ‘emergency meeting’ including all board members should be held to decide whether this person was to be disqualified, and how his slot would be filled if so,” Simon wrote in that email.
Babineaux decided to call an emergency meeting of the committee, not the full board, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Friday. Because Beasley was unable to attend, Board member Mark Cockerham was chosen to take Beasley’s place as the third committee member.
But sometime in between Thursday's phone call to Simon from Simoneaux’s office and Friday’s 2:30 meeting, Cooper had mysteriously withdrawn his name from the search, leaving the three committee members tasked with recommending someone to replace Cooper’s application to keep the field at 10 candidates. Cockerham was unable to attend the meeting, which left the committee with no quorum and therefore unable to take any action.
Unbeknownst to Simon — and apparently to most board members — Cooper had received a phone call from Simoneaux before the scheduled meeting, informing Cooper that the board’s wishes are for the new superintendent to start in January. The phone call to Cooper was made without formal meeting or vote from the board ever taking place.
“It is my legal opinion that, short of something to the contrary in writing, it takes a vote of the entire board to have someone removed from this list. Mark C told me that there are several board members that did not know what was happening last Friday. I find this very troubling, and I hope it is not the case," Simon wrote in the email to board members. "The entire board should be included in any decisions of this nature.”
Confused over Cooper’s withdrawal, Cockerham, who says he views Cooper’s application as one of the strongest on the list, called Cooper to learn what prompted him to abandon the application process.
“I had a feeling something happened to make him pull out,” Cockerham says. “I called the number on his resume the next day and just asked him what happened. He said he got a phone call from Angie saying it would inconvenience the board, and he didn’t want to inconvenience us. I was livid. The only people that can disqualify a candidate is with a vote of the board.”
What’s more disturbing for board member Tehmi Chassion is that not only were he and other board members unaware of a scheduled committee meeting on Friday, he also received a thank you card in the mail over the weekend from Scott Middle Principal John Pate, who had already been informed by either Simoneaux or Babineaux that he would replace Cooper in the list of the top 10 candidates.
“I found out that a recommendation had pretty much been made, and Mr. Pate was going to be included in the top 10 on the news that night,” Chassion says. “It hit me like a brick in the head. In my eyes [Cooper] was one of the stronger candidates. But it wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other whether it was the number one candidate or the number 10, to inform someone that we have issues with your application without getting a majority vote of the board is just wrong. If you’re going to make it fair and gain the trust of the community, if we want to one day see taxes passed to rebuild the facilities, we’ve got to get the simple things right when it comes to a superintendent search.”
The board took Simon’s advice and “put the issue to rest as quickly as possible” with a 5-3 vote Tuesday to reinstate Cooper’s application and also include Pate in the field of candidates. Trahan, Babineaux and Angelle voted against Cooper being allowed back into the race. Beasley, Cockerham, Chassion, Cobb and board member Kermit Bouillion voted in favor of the measure. Board member Greg Awbrey was absent.
Coincidentally, Babineaux and board member Rae Trahan did not vote for Cooper as one of their top 10 candidates. Angelle was absent for the top 10 list vote due to an unavoidable family conflict, but he did tell The Advertiser recently that if he would have been present, Pate would have been included in his list of 10 candidates.
“I know with the [board] president being in the minority on a lot of things, it’s a little tricky,” Cockerham says. “I don’t think he speaks for us. It’s just one of those things. We’re really just lucky to get [Cooper] back in the race. My goal was to get him back in. That’s all I wanted to do. I don’t have a problem with him starting later if selected. I think if this is the person we choose to lead this system, that position is so important. If we gotta wait a couple of months to get that person, so be it. For what we’re trying to do in this system, it’s too important to just draw the line in the sand and say sorry, if you can’t start here, you’re out.”