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New school attorney plans to be advocate for students

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Julie E. Lewis has 11 years of experience -- as an education and child advocacy attorney in both Atlanta and Washington D.C. -- to call on as she adjusts to representing Clayton County Public Schools.

Lewis has worked for the National Law Resource; the American Association of School Administrators; the National School Boards Association; the Georgia Department of Education; the State Department of Human Resources, and a private education law firm.

The Clayton County Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to hire Lewis as the school system's new attorney. She will make $175,000 per year -- the same salary as the district's outgoing attorney, Dorsey Hopson. She comes to the district after three months at the State Department of Human Resources.

"As a whole, I enjoyed working for the Department of Human Resources, but I saw this as another incredible opportunity where I get to help 53,000 children," Lewis said. "It was a tough decision to make, because I am a loyal person, but this opportunity was there for me, and I believe it was there for a reason ... I think this job is going to be very challenging, but very rewarding."

Lewis is the fifth attorney to work for the school system over the last 12 months. Gary Samms and Harold Eddy, members of the Decatur-based law firm of Weekes and Candler, served as the board's legal counsel until they severed ties with the district in July 2007. Hopson was brought in to replace them, but he is leaving this week to take a similar job with Memphis City Schools.

Glenn Brock was brought in by the board in December 2007 to help it deal with the ongoing accreditation crisis, but he cut his ties with the embattled board in April of this year, claiming the board was too stubborn to take anyone's advice.

Lewis said stability and focus is what the system needs as district officials deal with the accreditation issue. "There's been a lot of changes taking place, and a lot of people working on different things," she said.

The accreditation (issue) is going to be the biggest, and most pressing, challenge facing the school system, and it will be the primary issue she deals with, said Lewis. "I just plan to roll up my sleeves and do anything and everything I can to help the team out, and make sure this school system does not lose its accreditation."

She will work with the people responsible for attendance audits to make sure they meet SACS standards. Lewis met with Mark Elgart, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), for the first time on Thursday, so she could clarify the system's progress toward meeting nine mandates for improvement. The district has to meet the mandates by Sept. 1, or the accreditation will be revoked.

"We want to ensure we are moving in the right direction, and zeroing in on the right targets," Lewis said.

The school system's new attorney said she is already familiar with Gov. Sonny Perdue's two liaisons to the district, state board of education members, James Bostic and Brad Bryant. Working with the state board was one of her responsibilities when she worked for the Department of Education for three and a half years.

The Monroe Falls, Ohio-native obtained her bachelor's degree in political science from Northwestern University in 1994, and she graduated from the Loyola University-Chicago School of Law three years later. She said she always wanted to be a lawyer so she could help children, and she was attracted to Loyola-Chicago because it had a reputation for having a good child-advocacy program.

Lewis was a special-education attorney for the Atlanta-based Weatherly Law Firm from 2002 to 2004, and she dealt with how the state's mental health system dealt with children during her brief time with the Department of Human Resources. She helped review and revise a number of policies, including ones that dealt with students with disabilities, while she worked for the Department of Education.

Lewis is a member of the Georgia School Boards Association; the National School Board's Association; the State Bar of Georgia; the Virginia State Bar and the U.S. Supreme Court Bar.

Lewis said she plans to take a proactive stance toward protecting the school system's legal interests by making sure the district remains in compliance with local, state and federal education laws.

"Run a strong program and do the right thing," she said. "That's how you keep yourself out of hot water ... I don't believe in setting up the best defense in an attempt to minimize the damage. I think you should set up the best offense possible and head off problems before they arise."

Her fellow attorneys from the Department of Human Resources could not be reached for comment. Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said he could confirm that Lewis used to be an employee, but no one in the legal department was allowed to comment on her work performance, because of DOE policies regarding former employees.