'Outrageous' legal fees, illegal meeting alleged at Muscogee County School Board work session

Legal fees and the law were the topics of two contentious debates during the Muscogee County School Board's work session Tuesday evening.

Local attorney Frank Myers insisted the board spends an "outrageous" amount in legal fees, and board member Cathy Williams accused the board of conducting an illegal meeting when it went into closed session last month.

Myers, who advised the school board on its campaign to pass the most recent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum, sent Open Records Act requests to 21 Georgia school districts similar in size to Muscogee County. He asked for their legal expenses during the past five years. Of the 15 responses he received, Myers said, Muscogee County spends more than twice the average per student in legal fees as that group does collectively. The Muscogee County School District pays $20.77 per student; the group pays $9.60 per student.

In fact, he said, only two districts in the group, Fulton and Bibb counties, spend more money per student on legal fees than Muscgoee County. Myers excluded DeKalb County, he said, because of the extraordinary legal issues its board is going through after losing accreditation.

Myers noted that Bibb County School District, which covers Macon, decided last year to hire in-house counsel and end an exclusive relationship of more than 70 years with the law firm that provided its legal services.

Columbus law firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis, & Rothschild LLP is the only legal counsel the Muscogee County board has used in the 63-year history of the school district, which was established when the city and county school districts merged in 1950. The board hasn't sought bids or requests for proposals for those legal services since then.

While the school district's fees paid to Hatcher Stubbs have more than doubled from $323,254 in fiscal year 2005 to $666,028 in fiscal year 2012, Myers contends some teachers don't have enough paper and pencils and textbooks for their students.

"Can you muster the guts to stand up to these injustices?" Myers asked the board.

Myers' five minutes of allotted time expired and no board member disputed his charges. Williams was the only board member who asked the administration to look into the fees further. District 4 representative Naomi Buckner asked the administration to find out which teachers and schools are without the supplies Myers alleged.

Interim Superintendent John Phillips defended Hatcher Stubbs. He said he knows of only two other districts out of 180 in Georgia that have in-house counsel, and Hatcher Stubbs hasn't raised its hourly rate it charges the school district since 2005: $165 for partners, $115 for associates. Board attorney Jorge Vega of Hatcher Stubbs noted before the meeting that it is a substantial discount; his regular rate is $325 per hour, he said.

Myers stood up from his chair in the audience and interrupted Phillips, "Mr. Chairman, how much time does he get?"

Phillips responded, "I have all day" and threatened to have the security guard remove him from the meeting. The guard walked over to Myers and made sure he sat down.

The superintendent recommends the board's law firm, Phillips said, "and basically I've been very comfortable with their performance and fees. I'd like to be able to repurpose those fees as much as anybody else, but it's part of doing business."

After the meeting, school board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 said the information he has received about the legal fees shows the Muscogee County School District is comparable to other districts, and he denounced Myers' conclusion.

"I think he's wrong," Varner said. "I think he made statements just factually not correct. I think the public has to remember it's not that any law firm goes and creates business. The fees are there because we have needs as a school district, things come up, we get sued, and we're an easy target."

Varner also mentioned a benefit the long-term relationship with Hatcher Stubbs provides that is tough to quantify.

"There are so many various disciplines that a school board's law firm has to know about," Varner said. "You've got federal law, state law, local policy, contract law -- many different disciplines within the body of law the firm has to be expert on, and they are, and that's the level of comfort we have, and there's a level of efficiency there.

"If we would bid out legal fees every year, you would almost have to train lawyers to learn law. So what may be a 30-minute bill for a simple question may become a 4-hour bill for a lawyer who doesn't know it inherently and has to go out and do the research on it. So where's the savings in that?"

Illegal meeting?

As for the alleged illegal meeting, Williams told fellow board members she has received legal advice that the board's Feb. 18 closed session violated the state's Open Meetings Act. She wasn't specific, but she said she will pursue the issue with the Georgia Attorney General's Office.

No board member responded to this charge either, but again Phillips defended the board: "I've never had one board member ever in my career express that we violated the Open Meetings Act."

"I do not mind being the first," said Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative.

After the meeting, Williams said, "I'd be happy to go into detail once I get the opinion from the Attorney General's Office."

She did say the meeting wasn't about the superintendent search.

"The declared reason was attorney-client privilege," Williams said, adding that state law says such a reason must be about "ongoing, pending or legitimately threatened litigation. This was more of a vague legal matter."

Superintendent search

Varner updated the superintendent search, now a year after former superintendent Susan Andrews announced she would retire. He said search consultant Glenn Brock told him Tuesday that there are about 20 potential candidates who now are analyzing the district's data and determining whether they are a good fit. Varner said Brock expects to advertise the opening in the March 27 edition of Education Week, which Phillips called the widest-read magazine for educators seeking positions.