By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County school officials said an advertised staff attorney position needs to be filled because it affects student safety and could reduce the school system's legal liability, even though the vacancy is being pursued at a time when teacher layoffs remain a possibility.
Julie Lewis, the school system's general counsel, said finalists for the position are still being interviewed, and a personnel recommendation may come to the board of education in March. The position comes with a salary of up to $106,310.
"It's not only for safety purposes," Lewis said. "It's to try to reduce the number of lawsuits against the system."
Presently, Lewis is the only school system employee responsible for representing the school district and the school board in legal matters, including employee and student tribunals. She must also review school board policies, requests for proposals, and contract matters. She has one paralegal to assist her.
At this time, there are 15 active lawsuits against the school system, and several more employee and student tribunals, Lewis said.
By comparison, Atlanta Public Schools, which has about 3,000 more pupils than Clayton County Schools, employs six staff attorneys, and two paralegals, said Joe Manguno, a spokesman for the Atlanta school system. Lewis pointed to the size of Atlanta's school system, and said it was a sign of how disproportionate Clayton County is to other large, urban school systems when it comes to legal staffs.
"When you look at attorneys at most large, urban school systems across the country, they have to be able to work with staff, represent the district, represent the board, and develop procedures and protocols," Lewis said. "Right now, I'm doing everything."
While the school system is seeking a new staff attorney, it is also making moves to adjust its budget to save money. District officials expect the system will lose at least $23 million in state funding through an austerity cut, and reduced Full-Time Equivalency funds.
As a result, the number of teachers employed by the district could be involved. A hiring freeze was initiated in January in an effort to save money. Twenty-one surplus teaching positions went unfilled because of the hiring freeze.
Lewis said the school system is continuing to search for a staff attorney because officials began accepting applications in late November, and early December, before the hiring freeze began. She also said the district is required by state law to continue seeking someone to fill the vacancy because its closing date is "until filled" on the job advertisement.
When the hiring freeze was put into place, School Superintendent John Thompson said that only positions which dealt with student achievement and safety would be filled.
Larry Conner, the school system's chief of human resources, said the staff attorney position falls under the category of being necessary for student safety.
"With the number of potential lawsuits involving student safety, this is a critical position that needs to be filled," he said.
Since then, the district has canceled two teacher job fairs, and announced that at least 153 teachers need to retire, or transfer to other school systems. If the target number cannot be reached, new teachers, and those with certification issues could be laid off.
Sid Chapman, president of the Clayton County Education Association, which has more than 2,000 educators from the school system in its ranks, said there is only one position district officials should be concerned with - the superintendent.
Thompson's contract expires June 30, and the school board is in the early stages of conducting a national search for a school chief. The board is scheduled to vote March 3 to select a superintendent search firm.