School district paying $162,000

By Greg Gelpi

The school system pays more for part-time legal fees than for full-time senior administrators.

Gary Sams' firm, Weekes & Candler, the attorney for the Clayton County Board of Education, was paid $162,896.99 in fiscal year 2003. The fiscal year ran from July 1, 2002 to last June 30.

Interim Superintendent William Chavis, the highest paid senior administrator in the school system, is paid $118,000. Under newly named Superintendent Barbara Pulliam's contract, she would get $180,000.

While the law firm is hired to provide legal advice for the school board, Sams is the attorney who does most of the board's business.

Sams works on an as-needed basis with the school board. He has no contract.

For June alone, Weekes & Candler was paid $34,187.

Sams explained that he is only following the direction of the school board and serving in the capacity as prescribed by the board.

"I'm used a lot," he said. "I have been busier in the last few months with the superintendent search. This is no more than I have done with other school systems."

In the face of some criticism that he is doing too much for Clayton County schools, he counters, "I'm not doing enough."

Sams has been the school board attorney since 1989 and has served as the DeKalb County school board attorney since 1972, he said.

"Show me something that is not involved in law," Sams said, adding that instruction is the only area he avoids.

Some, though, have questioned his role during the past months.

"I find it disappointing that rather than hearing from a school board spokesman, we hear from a school board attorney," Tom McBrayer, a member of the Clayton County Coalition for Quality Education, said.

McBrayer said he didn't like learning about the school board's search for a superintendent through the board's attorney.

"I would hope that we are reaching the point of no longer having quotes from the school board attorney," he said.

Sams defended his position and the role he has taken during the search and during the year.

"I wish they understood the process better," Sams said. "I just find it an unsophisticated position."

Sams has taken an active role in school board business, advising the board during open sessions of meetings on a wide range of topics, including health insurance.

He was even sitting just off stage, although slightly hidden by a curtain, whispering and passing notes to board members during the public forum to introduce the three finalists for superintendent.

Sams also flew to St. Louis Park, Minn., Monday to negotiate the final contract with Pulliam.

Sams bills the system at $155 an hour for his services, school system Chief Financial Officer Lee Davis said. His paraprofessionals, who handle garnishments and other smaller legal matters, charge $50 an hour.

Preparing garnishments costs the school system about $48,000 each year, Davis said.

In fiscal year 2002, the system paid $167,197.20, the most in recent years. Weekes & Candler was paid $145,893.25 for fiscal year 2001 and $110,541.59 for fiscal year 2000.

Davis said that the school system has $225,000 budgeted for legal expenses. From that $225,000, the school system pays Weekes & Candler, court reporters and other legal expenses.

The figures do not include other legal costs like the $53,102 paid to a group of lawyers fiscal year for the ouster of Superintendent Dan Colwell.

Bill Smith, general counsel with the Georgia Bar Association, said an attorney can give advice on any question his client inquires about, even non-legal issues. Attorneys serve in the capacity that their clients establish.

"It can be as narrow or broad as the school board wants it to be," Smith said of the attorney-client relationship. "Lawyers give clients all kinds of advice. It may be legal advice or may be moral advice. It may just be sharing experiences."

He agreed with Sams that most issues have a legal component.

"Could you see any area when you wouldn't want to ask advice?" Smith said. "If the board asks the board's attorney a question, then the board wants an answer."

Sams' pay is more than many of the top legal officials in Clayton County earn full time.

In comparison, Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller makes $126,326.10. State Court Solicitor Keith Martin is paid $85,892.10. K. Van Banke, the highest paid juvenile court judge in Clayton County, has a salary of $129,813.17, the same as state court judges are paid.

(Staff writer Ed Brock contributed to this story).