Articles‎ > ‎

Texts reveal school board intentions

June 9, 2011
The Daily Advertiser

Strategizing about the future of the Lafayette Parish School System superintendency was plentiful before and after Superintendent Burnell Lemoine's surprise announcement that he would retire in December.

Emails and text messages obtained by The Daily Advertiser through a public records request reveal that off-the-record discussions between Lafayette Parish School Board members touched on the subject of how to conduct a superintendent search and who should head the search committee.

The messages, for the first time, also confirm there definitely were five board members committed to voting against an extension of Lemoine's contract.

Lemoine pre-empted discussion about the issue at a May 4 meeting, announcing he would retire when his current contract expires and end his 43 years in education.
Five nays

When questioned by The Advertiser last month, Hunter Beasley, Tehmi Chassion and Kermit Bouillion all said they would have voted against an extension. Mark Cockerham had refused to comment, but this week confirmed that he would have voted against the contract. Text messages reveal that board Vice President Shelton Cobb did not support the extension, making him the fifth vote.

Cobb, however, still refused to say on the record how he would have voted.

"I don't think you have the right to question me of how I would have voted," Cobb said Thursday. "What good is collecting that kind of history? Mr. Lemoine has decided to retire. How we would have decided to vote is a moot point."

Texts sent by Bouillion to both board president Mark Babineaux and Tommy Angelle give insight, however.

"Mr. Cobb will visit the sup today and give him the news," Bouillion texted. "We want to be very professional with him regarding this vote."

Cobb originally agreed to meet with Lemoine and tell him that five board members would not support his contract, Bouillion said.

Cobb denied that he agreed to that.

"That's what he (Bouillion) said. I didn't say that," Cobb said.

"Mr. Cobb was one of the board members that said he couldn't support extending the superintendent contract," Bouillion said.

Eventually, Beasley was the one to tell Lemoine that there was not enough support for the extension.

Thursday Lemoine still said his decision to retire was a "very personal" one, not based on board antics. He did not want to comment when asked about the behind-the-scenes board conversations.

"Absolutely don't get me involved in any of that," Lemoine said. "I'm not even venturing out to give any opinion. I'm done. I'm retiring in December."

When asked if he told Bouillion that he would vote against the extension, Cobb said he might have told him that, but said it didn't matter because a vote never was taken.
'Bonded together'

The behind-the-scenes conversations surfaced at the May 18 board meeting. Angelle announced on the board floor that Bouillion had called him and said, "there's five of us and four of y'all," Bouillion confirmed that he said that.

The accusation moved former Lafayette city councilwoman Nancy Mounce to ask 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson to look into the matter. Harson held a few informal meetings with board members and during the June 1 meeting gave board members a warning, telling them that they "violated the spirit" of the Louisiana Open Meetings Law.

During the meeting, Harson mentioned text messages and emails, which prompted The Advertiser to request the records. Babineaux and Angelle handed over text messages, while Chassion and Bouillion released emails. The rest — Greg Awbrey, Rae Trahan, Cockerham, Beasley and Cobb — said they did not have any text messages or emails about the superintendency.

The most pointed message was one Bouillion texted Babineaux on the evening of April 30.

"Five of LPSB members have bonded together to end Mr. Lemoine's contract in Dec of 2011," Bouillon texted to Babineaux. "Need to talk to you in person."

A few minutes later Babineaux responded, "Why?" but did not receive a response. He later followed up with, "Why December? What is your better idea?" without a response.

Babineaux and Bouillion did eventually meet days before the May 4 meeting. Bouillion followed up with the text message about Cobb's planned visit with the superintendent.

"To say I had five votes and (Angelle) had four, that was a bad choice of words," Bouillion said. "And to text (Babineaux) and tell him that we have five board members that have bonded together, that's another bad choice of words."

Bouillion and other board members in the caucus said Thursday that they did not make concerted effort to build a majority. Chassion laughed when read Bouillion's texts. Instead, the assumption came from multiple board members calling each other, they said.

"From my perspective, because I wasn't in every place at every time, I don't think there was anything improper going on and no 'backdoor dealings,' so to speak," Beasley said. "I think there were conversations trying to understand where one person was coming from."

Angelle, however, said Bouillion made a different statement in a phone conversation the Saturday before the May 4 meeting.

"I was told that five board members had caucused, and they pledged to each other that they would not vote to extend the contract," he said. "That's what Kermit told me on the last day of April."

But most board members said regardless of what happened, it is time to move on.

"I'd like to just get past all of this," Awbrey said. "I think everyone has learned from this experience. I think we need to get past this and get on with the business of the school system."
Legal action

Despite evidence that the caucusing may have violated state open meeting laws, Babineaux did not report Bouillion.

Babineaux did not want to comment on whether he thought Bouillion did anything malicious or wrong.

"That wasn't really for me to determine," he said. "That was up to the DA."

On Thursday, Harson said no more investigation or action was needed. He didn't believe that anyone had "ill motives" or that five board members got together to decide how they would vote.

"That's why I felt a warning in this case was appropriate. Several of the board members are relatively new. I don't think any further steps are necessary," he said. "If it happens again, that's a different story. They can't claim ignorance."

Although Bouillion sent an email saying he would like Beasley to head the search committee and receive superintendent applications at home, that was done before Angelle's accusations. Chassion and Bouillion also discussed using Teacher for America's superintendent search services over email before the May 18 meeting.

Since, Bouillion says he hasn't talked to any board members — electronically, on the phone or in person — outside of board meetings.

"I definitely want to put this behind me, because this was a big learning experience for me," Bouillion said. "I'm glad this happened in the first six months, because it will never, ever happen again."