By MARINA WATERS
Not only did the board of education end its monthly meeting with a chosen design plan for the upcoming Jonesborough School, but it also ended with the decision to hire its own attorney.
The 5-4 decision to hire Chattanooga attorney Scott Bennett came after the nine-member board rescinded the decision made at the Nov. 9 meeting to hire Bennett to represent the board in an upcoming legal matter.
At the Dec. 7 meeting, board member and Chairman Jack Leonard said the board was going to address the decision because some board members voted at the November meeting thinking they were hiring Bennett as their official attorney rather than for one particular case.
“From talking to Unicoi County and other board members,” Board member David Hammond, who made the motion to hire Bennett, said, “I think it’s going to save us money — the tax payers.”
Bennett has been involved in school board law for 23 years and currently represents Bradley County, White County, DeKalb County, Hamilton County, Jefferson County, Polk County, Unicoi County and Fayetteville City school boards. Bennett also gave a presentation of his services at the board’s Oct. 5 meeting after Hammond suggested the board consider Bennett as its exclusive attorney.
The board opted for Bennett’s $195 per-hour rate at the Dec. 7 meeting. However, Washington County Department of Education’s Finance Director Brad Hale said in hiring an attorney, the board would have to get approval from the Washington County Commission to amend the board’s budget.
“If we do incur an additional, say it’s $50,000 or $200,000 in a year, it’s totally unbudgeted,” Hale said. “And we’re going to really risk going backwards in our fund balance significantly I’m afraid.”
Hale also said the board’s budget currently contains $13,000 for legal fees, but that he is expecting to need $8,000 to $10,000 of that amount to cover the investigations currently being conducted at David Crockett High School regarding multiple athletic program employees.
Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton said Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley typically provides the school system with legal advice. Hale also said he frequently contacts Seeley with questions and asked if that would still be permitted. The board agreed that Seeley could still be contacted for questions or legal advice.
Meanwhile, for some board members, such as Clarence Mabe, money remained a concern.
“He has to call (Tom Seeley) and ask a simple question, it’s free — no money. You call the other guy, it costs you $250, plus you’ve gotta pay Johnson City $250,” Mabe said. “And if that’s using tax payers’ money to the wisest, we all ought to walk out the door and quit.”
Leonard said he was also concerned about the billing aspect in regards to billing for phone conversations with Bennett.
“It could add up. He also stated he doesn’t necessarily have to share with any of us who’s calling him. And I think that is very inappropriate — especially when it’s dealing with our budget and money,” Leonard said. “Anybody could call him and he’s going to put that on the clock. If we’re used to calling TSBA (Tennessee School Board Association), we’ll be calling him. So I think that’ll add up and we won’t have any record until he presents us the bill.”
For board member Mike Masters, the decision to opt for a Jonesborough School design plan that is $3.8 million over the budget allocated by the county commission was another factor to keep in mind regarding the decision to hire a board attorney.
“I just want to keep everybody in mind too; we just voted for scheme two that we’re going to take to the HEW committee,” Masters said. “That, to me, is going to hold a lot of water if we’re trying to save money rather than spend money when we go to the HEW committee. We’re going to ask for $3 million more dollars.”
Board member Keith Ervin, however, said he understood it was a budget issue, but that tax payers are paying for an attorney whether it’s out of the county’s budget or the school system’s.
“If we put it in our budget, they’re still going to pay it,” Ervin said. “They’re paying it one way or the other way. This way, he is the school system’s attorney. Period.”