KATC Investigates

Mar 5, 2013 6:33 PM by Dwayne Fatherree and Chris Welty

Assistant hire continues driving drama at LPSS

While Lafayette Parish Public Schools Superintendent Pat Cooper has repeated his support for Special Assistant Thad Welch, the hiring of his former school maintenance and transportation director from McComb, Miss., has raised questions among school board members, especially after they learned that Welch does not have a high school diploma as required by the position's job description.

Cooper has admitted that an administrative mistake -- overlooking the fact that Welch does not have a high-school diploma or GED as required by the job description -- was made in the process that brought Welch to Louisiana. But despite his mea culpa, the hiring has led to sharper scrutiny of the system's hiring practices.

It has also led District 7 board member Mark Cockerham to add an item to Wednesday night's agenda asking the board to "ratify" all of its personnel moves during the 2012 year, basically as a gesture in support of Welch.

Over the past weeks, KATC has requested numerous records from the Lafayette Parish School Board and conducted interviews with many of the parties involved in both Welch's hire in March of last year and the discussion that has ensued subsequent to questions District 4 board member Tehmi Chassion raised about the hire in December.

26 applicants
Welch was one of only seven candidates who were interviewed. Those seven prospects were culled from a field of 26, with 19 being summarily dismissed with a note of "No experience" by then Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Lilly.

His placement among the finalists put Welch in esteemed company. Other resumes in the pile included:
-- a former assistant director of Lafayette's public works department,
-- a former executive director for the SMILE public action agency.
-- a former plant operations director for the Regional Medical Center of Acadiana,
-- a large-market commercial property manager, and
-- two long-time general contractors.

"I had just retired from the (Public Works) department, and don't know if I would have accepted the job even if they had offered it," said Pat Logan, one of the three candidates who made it to the second round of interviews with Cooper. "As far as their decision not to make an offer to me, you'd have to ask them."

Logan's credentials are impressive. During his three decades working for the city of Lafayette and later for the consolidated government, he was responsible for setting multimillion dollar budgets in addition to maintaining and directing hundreds of municipal projects.

Cooper argues that Logan's experience is not in a school environment and, therefore, is less applicable than Welch's. "It's all about performance, it's all about experience, it's all about my first hand knowledge of the job he can do and our human resources department telling me no one is even close to being qualified like he is," said Cooper. 

For his part, Welch did include four letters of recommendation with his vitae. His one-page resume, however, had only five words under the education heading: South Pike Senior High School.

It did not indicate that he had graduated, merely that he attended.

The document also had only one employer listed -- the McComb Public School District, where he had worked since 1980, the last 17 years as director of transportation, maintenance, custodial and grounds. It was while he was serving in that capacity for the six schools and 2,900 students that he first worked for Pat Cooper.

Cooper admits that he told Lilly about Welch, and that he thought he was a good candidate for the job. However, he denies he did any other lobbying during the process, instead letting the personnel department vet and rate the candidates independently. "I got to see him work for ten years, I knew what kind of person he was. Unless we could find someone better here, that's the man I wanted. It's my job as CEO to make sure I have the best possible people. It's not the board's job, it's my job," said Cooper. 

The procedure for selecting candidates is laid out in the district's policy. According to that document, educational degrees count for 8 percent of the total score. Professional and technical work experience is worth less, at 7 percent.. Professional and technical administrative experience is worth up to 13 percent. Other professional and community experience and leadership positions can earn candidates up top 5 percent, and written communication can be worth up to 12 percent of the score.

The heaviest factors in the selection process are the candidate's performance record, worth 20 percent of the total, and the interview itself, which is worth 35 percent.

"Until they gave me the names of the finalists, I did not know who they were," Cooper said.

Lilly and personnel assistant Love Langlinais conducted the initial series of interviews for the final seven candidates, reducing that number to three finalists. Logan, John Broussard and Welch made the cut and proceeded to the final interview with Cooper.

Interestingly, Welch scored very high marks for his personal presentation and poise as well as his communication and delivery even though he was interviewed by phone.

Click here to see the score sheets for the top three candidates as decided by the personnel office.

Lilly, who led the initial candidate search, refused to be interviewed for this story. When asked for his take on the process, he said only, "I disagree with (Cooper's) interpretation of what took place."

A delayed reaction
It was more than 10 months after he had been hired that the questions about Welch's education became public. Chassion told his fellow board members that he had received complaints from other employees that Welch did not meet the education requirements of his position.

"Before the guy was hired, it was hey guys, we need to at least set some minimum requirements and it was a high school diploma. We assumed any candidate brought to us for a recommendation would have at least had that minimum requirement," Chassion said. 

Cooper said he told other board members about the lack of a diploma, but said he may not have mentioned it to all of the board members. During the discussion prior to adopting the job description last year, Chassion had questioned the need for a position at the assistant superintendent level that did not require a higher level of education.

Chassion says the board is not allowed to look at resumes because it could cause a hinderance on the hiring, firing process and it's "as though the board is trying to micromanage who they want to hire." 

In February, Chassion introduced a motion to stop funding Welch's position. That agenda item is not listed among this week's action items. According to Cooper's office, the item was being held pending a response from the state attorney general on whether or not the board can take that step, but it was added to the action items on the board's agenda Tuesday afternoon.

Welch has also retained an attorney, Lane Roy, who has fired a shot across the bow of any board action to remove Welch -- or his position -- from the district's rolls. Roy is the former attorney for the Lafayette Parish School Board.

"I would also... remind the Board that when the Board acts illegally, knowing in advance that their actions are illegal, state law provides that they may be held personally responsible for damages that result from their illegal actions," Roy stated in his letter.

Click here to read the full letter from Roy to the board's attorney.

Chassion says, "Board policy isn't being followed right now. Until board policy is followed, I'd like to elminate how that position is funded." 

Dr. Cooper feels as though it's time to move on. "It has taken a lot of time from the business of education where we know the man's doing a good job, we know we didn't violate any policy, we know he didn't violate any trust because he told the truth from the start. I'm not sure what the issue is anymore." 

Next steps
As Wednesday night's meeting draws closer, the positioning behind the scenes continues. But inside all of the political posturing, the question of how to best serve the district becomes blurred.

According to Cooper, Welch is the best candidate and should have been hired, educational requirements notwithstanding. Chassion says that a properly followed procedure should have picked up the discrepancy and that the board should go back to square one to hire for the job. Chaisson says because they can't fire, only control the money, the board should pull the funding for the position.

District 8 board member Hunter Beasley voiced some concern over the wholesale change of Welch's job duties without any input from the board on the changes.

"If the duties change drastically, we should have the right to approve the job description," Beasley said.

Wednesday night, the Lafayette Parish School Board will take up Chaisson's proposal to eliminate funding for Welch's position. They'll also discuss a proposal by Mark Cockerham. He's suggested that instead of waiting for the Attorney General to weigh in, the board simply ratify all the hires made in 2012, so they can all move on.




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