Sunday, August 7, 2022

Pender County Schools legal spending remains high, nearing $1 million over two years

Protestors hold signs outside a Pender County School Board of Education meeting on June 16, a week after a Pender High teacher posted documents showing the use of the n-word by the principal and a teacher at the school. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

PENDER COUNTY — The past two fiscal years, Pender County Schools spent nearly a million dollars on legal fees — not including $28,515 recently billed by the firm Blue LLC following an investigation into the use of racial slurs by the principal and a teacher at Pender High School.

The total of $382,302 paid for legal services and expenses from July 2019 to June 2020 was nearly $200,000 less than the legal fees paid the previous fiscal year. According to the district, it paid the Raleigh firm Schwartz and Shaw $573,805 in 2018-2019, bringing the two-year total to $956,107.

In April 2019 the school district reported a total of $364,905 paid to the firm, which has represented PCS since 2015, meaning it then spent $209,000 over the remaining three months of the 2018-2019 fiscal year. It paid $291,896 in legal fees the year before.

RELATED: After investigation, questions remain about use of n-word in Pender schools

The district saw a spike in March due to its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused Governor Roy Cooper to close all public schools beginning March 16. The average monthly amount of $31,860 last year was well below the $53,577 billed for legal services and expenses incurred in March — $15,249 of which was categorized as coronavirus-related fees.

District spokesperson Alex Riley said the $28,515 payment for the racial slurs investigation will take place sometime Thursday.

District: Firm saves us hundreds of thousands of dollars

Port City Daily sent a public records request on July 1 for the 2019-2020 fiscal year’s legal fees. On August 26, an email was sent to Richard Schwartz, a senior partner at Schwartz and Shaw, describing in detail the nature of the request and the length of time that had passed.

The email also included insight from the UNC School of Government on the state’s public records law; the school said that “unless a request is extraordinary … a custodian should respond within a week or two at most.” Schwartz was asked if the information request could be fulfilled by the end of that week.

“Yes,” he replied, adding nothing more in his response.

The request was fulfilled by the end of the following week, Friday, September 4. Riley then provided additional information — the Schwartz and Shaw totals for June 2020 and the Blue LLC investigation cost — on Tuesday afternoon.

Superintendent Steven Hill and members of the Pender County Schools Board of Education were asked for an explanation of the high legal costs during the previous fiscal year. The district sent a statement Wednesday evening, saying the $382,302 it paid Schwartz and Shaw constitutes only 0.3 percent of the district’s total 2019-2020 budget. (Read the full statement at the bottom of this article.)

It noted that legal services are necessary for all school districts across the county to “ensure certain proceedings and requests are executed in compliance with local, state, and federal laws.” Additionally, it said the firm’s team of lawyers specializing in education law saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in other costs.

“The firm’s efforts in contract savings and insurance recovery far exceeded the total legal costs for the 2019-20 school year,” the district said.

And 2019-2020 legal fees were lower than the $573,805 spent the previous fiscal year, according to the district, a year that began with Hurricane Florence causing catastrophic flooding across the low-lying areas of the county.

“The elevated cost was in relation to new school construction and legal matters stemming from Hurricane Florence and the recovery,” the district stated.

But some of the highest numbers came before Hurricane Florence — the district spent $547,882 in the 2015-2016 fiscal year and $456,090 the following year, for example.

* The 2019-2020 total does not include the $28,515 billed by Blue LLC following its investigation into the use of racial slurs by the principal and a teacher at Pender High. (Port City Daily graphic)

Far higher legal costs than neighboring counties

In April 2019, Pender County Schools reported far higher legal costs than its neighboring school districts. Its legal fees for 2016-2017 totaled $456,090, while those for New Hanover County Schools totaled $96,288 and those for Brunswick County Schools totaled $110,242.

Then-Chairman Brad George said at the time he believed the disparity was a result of PCS reporting more comprehensive legal costs than the others.

“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.”

George said legal fees had spiked in recent years due to negotiations with contractors and mold remediation specialists after Florence caused extensive flooding across the county, 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.

In the spring of 2018, Topsail High’s athletic director resigned in the wake of an investigation involving an ineligible player that forced the Pirates out of the 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 the county undertook in 2014 was nearing completion as the K-8 Penderlea School project came to a close, but a decrease in legal fees involving school construction had been offset by an increase in legal fees surrounding post-Florence building repairs.

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

2018-2019 (as of early April)$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 in April 2019. The 2015-2016 numbers for Brunswick County Schools and New Hanover County Schools were not received by the time of publication.

Read the full statement from PCS below:

For all school districts throughout the country, legal services are necessary to ensure certain proceedings and requests are executed in compliance with local, state and federal laws. While legal services can be rendered in a variety of ways (in-house counsel, contracts with multiple agencies based on subject matter, etc.) Pender County Schools utilizes the firm of Schwartz & Shaw for all legal matters. Schwartz & Shaw employs a team of lawyers who specialize in an array of topics related to education law. During the 2019-20 school year, PCS spent $382,302 on legal services with the firm. This constitutes approximately 0.3 percent of the district’s total budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year. These services included contract drafting and review, construction, human resources, bond and forfeitures, criminal matters, student records, discipline appeals and other student matters, grievances, personnel investigations, Exceptional Children, record requests, hurricane insurance and FEMA recovery, and much more. Additionally, Schwartz & Shaw attends all Pender County Board of Education meetings to provide legal guidance and holds Board and district staff training each year to provide information on the latest legal mandates. The firm’s efforts in contract savings and insurance recovery far exceeded the total legal costs for the 2019-20 school year. By comparison, in 2018-19, Pender County Schools spent $573,805 with Schwartz & Shaw on legal fees. The elevated cost was in relation to new school construction and legal matters stemming from Hurricane Florence and the recovery.

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