Manatee School Board to make shifts in legal department

eearl@bradenton.comMarch 26, 2013 

MANATEE -- With the Manatee County school board attorney John Bowen retiring in three months, the school board must decide soon how to proceed with transitions in the legal department.

Bowen would like the legal department to operate as one voice, and "not in a manner where the new superintendent would get his own attorney to come up with opposing opinions every time he disagrees with school board," he said in a school board workshop Monday. "That is dysfunctional."

Over the past few years, the school board's legal department has been gradually shrinking, and it is now down to two people in the legal department: one attorney and one assistant.

New Superintendent Rick Mills noted that in his previous school district in Minnesota, they had three staff attorneys and a paralegal for a district smaller than Manatee County. Mills said the school district needs its own attorney and appropriate support staff and a separate attorney to meet needs of board.

School board chair Karen Carpenter and school board member Barbara Harvey said the Manatee district needs a transition attorney to be available around the clock.

"We need someone in Bowen's chair to be available for the board to make sure we are doing the right thing when making policies. We need that person," Harvey said.

Ideally, Harvey said, "all I have to do is pick up the phone, and all teachers and principals have to do is pick

up the phone and call. Unless we have a superhero, I don't see how one person can take care of the legal needs of the board."

Bowen recommends utilizing the transition team that Mills is forming in the 100-day entry plan. Bowen said these leaders, such as former superintendent of Seminole County and citizen advisory committee member Bill Vogel, could survey the needs of the district in determining legal needs and the best way to satisfy those needs.

The school board acknowledged they need to talk about and organize the selection process as soon as possible, and Mills' transition team will not be in place until April 22.

All five school board members agreed that they need to move on the staff attorney well before that, and that an immediate transition is needed so that nothing "falls between the cracks."

The next steps in shifting the legal department involves eventually providing for additional staff for next year's budget and talking to the Florida School Board Association for advice.

"Each district is unique, and there is no cookie-cutter approach," Carpenter said.

The school board also needs to make a decision about the office of professional standards, which still sits empty. The office of professional standards, which conducts investigations into alleged employee misconduct, was previously occupied by Debra Horne, who is now the assistant principal at Prine Elementary.

The office of professional standards is still part of the legal department under board policy until changed.

"It was an extremely efficient department," Bowen said. "It was cited by the state department as a model to follow."

Assistant superintendent Scott Martin said that the continuation of the office of professional standards as a legal function is up to the school board, and it is currently on pause.

Some districts outsource those services, but Carpenter said she is hesitant to look at the bills for outsource costs, which are about $50,000 a month.

Bowen said the school board should charge Mills with figuring out what needs to be done for staff attorney.

"We are all acting expeditiously," Carpenter said. "We are under the gun now."

The school board did not reach a consensus on Monday over having an interim, but decided that Mills and the board will specifically address the transitions in the legal department in their board meeting on April 8.

"We are discussing negotiations, the budget, new administration and other policies. We have a full plate," said school board vice chair Julie Aranibar. "Holding up the transition is not conducive."

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