NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education reached a compromise over its new law firm’s contract terms on Tuesday, despite several members pushing back on the controversial pick.
Last week, the school board voted to switch law firms, choosing between three, including the district’s current representation, Tharrington Smith.
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The final selection was Vogel Law Firm, a “boutique” enterprise with connections to the Republican Party. One of its attorneys, Jonathan Sink, is the former executive director of the North Carolina GOP. As reported by WHQR, UNC System board of governors member Woody White urged the school board to pick Vogel, and New Hanover County Republican Party chair Nevin Carr also advocated the board choose a different firm, yet didn’t specify Vogel.
Board members Stephanie Walker and Pat Bradford, along with Superintendent Charles Foust, were charged with scoring the law firms after hearing presentations from them on April 24.
Tharrington Smith ranked the highest. The firm represents 20 school boards including Wake County Schools and the North Carolina School Boards Association. Both have been clients since 1978.
Poyner Spruill placed second. It serves nine school districts across the state, including Pender County Schools.
Vogel scored the lowest out of the three firms. It was this fact, along with concerns over Vogel’s transparency, that made Walker, Stephanie Kraybill and Hugh McManus express opposition to the firm at their regular May 2 board meeting.
“I am very vehemently against this, based on qualifications alone,” Walker told her colleagues at the meeting. “[It’s] not whether I like him [Jonathan Vogel], them, or whatever, because when I did this I didn’t know who they were; I just saw their paper. And we have a baseline for a reason. And they did not cut it.”
Eventually, the board voted 4-3 to hire Vogel, with Tharrington Smith’s contract set to expire June 30.
Port City Daily reached out to each of the four Republican board members that favored Vogel, asking what qualifications stood out in the firm that propelled them above the other two options. No one responded by press.
On Tuesday, the board was tasked with setting the terms for the agreement — but only after an attempt was made to reverse the board’s hiring decision.
Kraybill made a motion to reconsider the May 2 decision, citing concerns over Vogel’s qualifications.
“I don’t feel they are qualified, even with the partners that they have brought in,” Kraybill said. “They have limited education law experience. They are not qualified to handle the diversity and complexity of our system and the needs of our staff, who are trying to meet the needs of our student body.”
On its website, Vogel Law Firm touts itself as an “education law firm” with dealings in K-12 and higher education. Its public school expertise includes athletic eligibility, bullying and harassment, civil rights and discrimination, Individualized Education Programs and more. In most of these areas, the firm’s website states it has represented families in these matters, not school districts.
After some debate, Bradford objected to Kraybill’s motion to rescind the vote, but the effort failed by falling short of the two-thirds threshold.
Bradford stated she was impressed by managing attorney Jonathan Vogel’s resume, which includes serving as deputy general counsel for higher education and regulatory services in the U.S. Department of Education and counsel to the assistant attorney general for the civil rights division in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Kraybill said she was also concerned about Vogel’s transparency about the Cabarrus County Board of Education’s reconsideration of its contract with the firm. During the April 25 meeting, Vogel did not give a formal presentation to that district, as both Cabarrus and New Hanover school districts were having meetings on the same day. When asked why he didn’t choose to be in Cabarrus County, Vogel said he was “confident that we’ll remain their legal firm.”
On May 8, Cabarrus County voted 4-3 not to retain Vogel’s services. As pointed out by Kraybill during Tuesday’s discussion, two attempts were made for the district to stay with Vogel while it hashed out terms of its new law firm, both of which failed to gain a second.
“They obviously don’t want him for some reason, and I don’t feel like we want him either,” Kraybill said.
Bradford countered, stating she observed the board was divided during the meeting.
Walker took away a different perspective, saying the board may have been divided on who to choose, but they were united on terminating their contract with Vogel.
Bradford also scolded Kraybill, describing her remarks as “personal attacks.”
“I believe our former chairperson is completely out of order in the things she is doing and she’s running amok, and I personally am quite tired of it,” Bradford said.
Ultimately, Kraybill’s motion failed 4-3, Walker and McManus joining her in support.
Kraybill then moved to the terms of Vogel’s contract, asking the district to use a “pay-as-you-go” method rather than a monthly retainer. She also suggested a trial period, with the contract running month to month.
Barnhart suggested a six-month period as a compromise but wasn’t sure whether they should go with an hourly rate versus a retainer. Foust clarified the district would prefer billable hours.
For this fiscal year, the district is projected to spend $314,000 on Tharrington Smith’s retainer; the expense does not include the civil case regarding the district’s culpability in several sexual abuse incidents.
Eventually, the board voted 6-1, Bradford dissenting, to hire Vogel Law Firm for six months, with a “pay as you go” model. Vogel’s hourly rates are $175 for associates and $235 for partners.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com.
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