Saturday, June 3, 2023

Pender Co. Schools spent $1.6 million on legal fees in four years

PCS Board of Education Chairman Brad George said legal fees have spiked in recent years due to negotiations with contractors after Hurricane Florence, construction bonds and land acquisitions for three new schools, and lengthy investigations of Topsail High sports programs.

An aerial photo of construction at Surf City School.s (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)
An aerial photo shows construction at Surf City elementary and middle schools. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Pender County)

PENDER COUNTY — In the less than four years, Pender County Schools has spent more than $1.6 million in legal fees on what school district officials attribute to a spike in costs associated with school bonds and construction, athletic investigations, and the enforcement of federal regulations for students with disabilities.

This figure includes the current fiscal year’s legal fees, now at $364,900, which have risen due to ongoing construction projects and hurricane-related recovery efforts, according to PCS spokesman Alex Riley.

RELATED: Eastern Pender County schools are over capacity and thousands more students are expected. Now what?

The numbers: “We reported everything”

The annual figures are considerably larger than those of nearby Brunswick County Schools and New Hanover County Schools. In the fiscal year ending July 2018, PCS (with 9,500 students) spent $291,896, BCS (12,500 students) spent $69,376, and NHCS (26,253 students) spent $101,216, according to communications officers for each district.

PCS Board of Education Chairman Brad George said he believes the disparity is a result of his district reporting more comprehensive legal costs — those on top of attorneys’ retainers for monthly board meetings and mandatory training sessions — than those reported by NHCS or BCS.

“We reported everything and it appears the other boards didn’t,” George said. “It appears they reported what they paid for the [attorney] retainer for their meetings and their training. I’m not saying for sure that’s what happened, but looking at their budget, that’s what it appears. Ours included all of the legal fees.”

Annual legal fees for Cape Fear region school districts

Fiscal Year PCS BCS NHCS
2015-2016 $547,882
2016-2017 $456,090 $110,242 $96,288
2017-2018 $291,896 $69,376 $101,216
2018-2019 (to date) $364,905 $18,943 $81,438

These figures were given to Port City Daily by communications officers of the three Cape Fear region school districts. Some were not received by the time of publication of this article and will be updated accordingly.

The 2018 figure for NHCS includes the salary of Wilmington attorney Wayne Bullard — he is the only attorney on a school district’s payroll in the Cape Fear region — and an additional $3,800 paid to outside counsel. Meanwhile, BSC spent its reported 2017-2018 amount on an hourly basis utilizing the services of two different law firms.

According to Riley, in the 2017-2018 fiscal year PCS paid $283,780 to Raleigh-based law firm Schwartz and Shaw, which has represented the school district since 2015 and also represents other districts across the state.

Florence, investigations, school bonds

According to George, legal fees have spiked in recent years due to negotiations with contractors and mold remediation specialists after Hurricane Florence, drawing up construction bonds and land acquisitions for three new schools in the county, and lengthy investigations of Topsail High sports programs.

In February 2017, head track coach Ahmad Garrison was arrested and charged for human trafficking and soliciting a child by computer after meeting with a 14-year-old former student for sex. Investigators also alleged that Garrison offered to take the victim to Charlotte and have her perform sex acts for money.

“That was a lengthy one,” George said of the ensuing investigation.

Last spring, Topsail High’s athletic director resigned in the wake of an investigation involving an ineligible player that forced the Pirates out of state playoffs — an investigation that George said “involved a lot of man hours trying to figure out what went wrong there.”

He also said a $75 million bond program that the county undertook in 2014 is nearing completion as the K-8 Penderlea School project comes to a close, but a decrease in legal fees involving school construction has been offset by an increase in legal fees surrounding post-Florence building repairs.

“We were out of school for 40 days during Hurricane Florence; there were a lot of negotiations that went on with contractors and remediation specialists. Our attorneys handled all of that,” George said.

Riley also pointed to the enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a reason why legal fees have risen in recent years.

“Enforcing the IDEA federal regulations to provide the most inclusive and least restrictive learning environment for students with exceptionalities often leads to issues about appropriate services, discipline processes for students, notices to families, and work with our employees and the public — including families with exceptional students and without,” Riley said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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