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BOE passes ‘wish list’, spurs discussion on legal fees issues


Staff Writer

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It might not be Christmas just yet, but the Washington County Board of Education already has their “wish list” in hand for budget season.

The wish list, which includes items such as security updates, textbooks and personnel positions, was passed by the board along with a budget containing a four percent raise for all Washington County Department of Education employees. School board member Mike Masters made the motion for the four percent raise. Seven board members voted in favor while Keith Ervin voted against the motion. David Hammond was absent.

For the board, however, no item spurred as much conversation as the new line item for legal services, totaling $89,000.

Washington County’s Department of Education’s Finance Director, Brad Hale, said the school system’s bill for February’s legal services came in around $8,100 while the March bill was around $9,400. He also said the system’s budget currently contains $13,000 for legal services.

“We don’t know if it will be that every month, it could be more, it could be less, but if you take those two months and average it,” Hale said, “roughly, that’s about $102,000 (in legal services for the year).”

Hale said the system estimated $89,000, in addition to the $13,000 already set aside for legal fees in the budget, to land at the $102,000 average.

Board member Phillip McLain asked if the board wanted to get the school board attorney, Scott Bennett, on retainer rather than at his current rate which, as of the Dec. 7 meeting when the board opted to hire Bennett, was set at $195 per hour. Bennett said at a previous board meeting that his monthly retainer rate is $4,500.

Before the board hired Bennett, the county commission footed the bill for Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley’s work with the BOE. Because the board has hired its own attorney, that cost now comes out of the school system’s budget rather than the county’s. The Washington County Commission also recently upped the amount of funds in its budget for legal services by $105,000, in part, to cover the amount of fees from the department of education’s legal services. The board’s legal fees covered by the county are prior to Bennett’s hiring.

McLain expressed that he was more concerned with the wish list, totaling over $2.4 million, rather than the legal services line item.

“We can’t survive without legal representation with all the legal issues that come about to the board and this system. I wish that the nine board members that are here were as concerned with these other items as they are with that one line with legal services,” McLain said.

“We’ve seen the numbers from Mr. Meredith (Commissioner and Finance Director Mitch Meredith), how there’s not going to be any new dollars for several years. Where’s $2.4 million going to come from? I’m just sitting here about to break out in a sweat over this thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’”

For other board members, like BOE Chairman Jack Leonard, having a new line item tacked onto the budget was a concern.

“These are just requests. This is a wish list. We’ve had these at every board budget meeting that we’ve had. We’ve always had a wish list and we’ve always had a number that was very high that we eventually had to cut down,” Leonard said. “We never had a legal fee. It’s never been a part of our budget. And that’s why we’re bringing it up as a concern.”

Ervin said he felt the commission might consider taking on those legal fees, if asked.

“No one would say one word if he was handing the bill to the commission. To be honest about it, I think the commission would pay it,” Ervin said. “They paid it (before) anyway, we’re just using a different attorney. We’re fixing to get a new commission, we’re fixing to get a new mayor. I feel like they’ll pay it. I really do.”

Though legal fees took up a majority of the discussion, a request for textbooks throughout the system was the highest cost on the list at $751,000.

Director of Materials Susan Kiernan said part of that cost was due to new science standards that are included in new science textbooks as well as the high schools’ requests for Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and Geometry textbooks.

“I asked all of our principals to get our textbook coordinators in the schools to see what we haven’t bought and to see if we were just not buying what has been requested (by parents),” Kiernan said, “(The textbooks requested) were the items from the high schools. All elementary and middle schools responded there was no need that had not been filled.”

Also on the wish list were funds for items such as literacy libraries and educational software.

Numerous positions such as two athletic trainers, two bus mechanics, a bus garage and maintenance secretary, a guidance counselor at Ridgeview Elementary, a full time instructional coach position at Fall Branch Elementary, two computer technicians, two seasonal maintenance workers, two computer technicians and two band directors. were also listed.

Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton will present the budget to the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee at their next meeting on Thursday, April 5 at 1:30 p.m. at the first floor conference room in Jonesborough’s Historic Courthouse. The school board will also hold its regularly scheduled April board meeting on Thursday, April 5 at the Department of Education at 6:30 p.m.