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BOE renews law firm's services, despite questions

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County school board pays one lawyer $175,000 annually to handle the district's legal work. However, faced with a loss of accreditation, the district hired a Marietta firm, initially at a cost of no more than $25,000 to handle the issue.

Monday, however, school board members were informed by Gloria Duncan, interim superintendent, that she has been using the same firm to handle a recent sex scandal involving a coach and an assistant principal. The superintendent said she wants the firm of Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers, P.C., to continue providing legal help at a cost of $165 per hour. Eventhough the school system is already paying its in-house attorney, Dorsey Hopson, for that kind of work.

"There was an overall concern that personnel matters were not being handled properly, according to SACS allegations," Duncan said in a statement. "We worked with both in-house counsel, and Brock and Clay, to ensure that proper procedures were followed, as these claims relate to both district processes and SACS allegations."

The bill from Brock, Clay, Calhoun, and Rogers, dated Jan. 4, shows charges related to an investigation of an alleged affair involving former North Clayton High School football coach, Donald Shockley, and assistant principal, Josette Franklin. Both individuals resigned in early January.

Originally, the Marietta-based law firm was hired solely to handle the district's response to an investigation led by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The firm already conducted $24,521.25 worth of work since early December.

On Jan. 28, Glenn Brock, a member of the firm, said he doesn't foresee the final bill for services exceeding $35,000.

The board voted 8-0-1 to extend the firm's services, as long as the work is only related to the SACS investigation, and the accrediting agency's forthcoming report. Board member Yolanda Everett abstained from the vote.

The firm's participation in the investigation of Shockley and Franklin included phone calls to key district personnel, such as Duncan and Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Jackie Hubbert. Representatives from the firm also reviewed documents from the investigation, and wrote the charge letters sent to both Shockley and Franklin.

However, one board member questioned the law firm's involvement during Monday's meeting.

"Did [Dr. Mark Elgart, president of SACS' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement] tell you this needed to be addressed?" board member Rod Johnson asked Clem Doyle, a representative from the firm.

"Dr. Elgart has not directed us to do anything," Doyle responded. "Everything we have done has been related to the SACS issue."

On Tuesday, Elgart said he was not familiar with any tie between the two investigations, though.

"If someone is telling you that it's SACS related, then they are not telling you something that is accurate," Elgart said.

Ericka Davis, the board of education's chairperson, said Duncan informed her the firm is charging the district $165 per hour. Hopson has been instructed by the board to make sure that is accurate, Davis added. The chairperson said the district is also charged every time a member of the media contacts a representative of the firm to discuss the SACS issue.

She explained that the board did not have oversight over what the firm did because Duncan made the initial hire. The firm will now answer to the board, however, because of the vote to extend its services, Davis said. As a result, the chairperson does not expect a repeat occurrence where the firm does work that should be performed by Hopson.

"In-house legal work should be handled by our in-house counsel," Davis said.

SACS' investigatic report, including recommendations for sanctions against the district, is expected to be released within the next two weeks. The firm will then present new recommendations for how the district can fix problem areas identified in the report.

In other actions, the board approved several policies which Brock, Clay, Calhoun and Rogers' representatives believe will help address the SACS' issues with the district:

·The board agreed to change the title of Deanna Jordan, from the "executive assistant to the board," to the "executive assistant to the superintendent for board affairs," once a permanent superintendent has been hired.

· Board members voted in favor of vacating office space in the district's central office, and making themselves follow the same expenditure policies staff members have to follow.

·The board approved changes to policies covering the relationship between its members and the district's superintendent and system staff members. Members will not be allowed to attend cabinet meetings.

·Board members unanimously agreed to reject tobacco use on school property by students and staff members. Also, they unanimously approved a bid for the implementation of a wireless data network for the district.