Manatee County school board stuck on legal decision

eearl@bradenton.comApril 24, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School Board is still unsure how its legal department will operate in coming months even as its attorney's retirement looms.

While board attorney John Bowen is set to retire in June, the school board has failed to decide whether it wants an in-house legal department or whether to contract with outside attorneys.

Scott Martin, who has served as the assistant superintendent of support systems, has been slated to return to the district's legal division as a full-time staff attorney.

School board members said they have not made a decision because the procedure for selecting an outside attorney is too complicated, they don't understand the process and that they don'thave enough information about the process to contract an outside attorney.

"We are not talking about a concrete contract, but moving forward through this," said Chairwoman Karen Carpenter.

Ultimately the school board has four options for legal services:

• Keep the current structure, which has been used since about 2005, including one full-time, in-house school board attorney, one full-time, in-house staff attorney and contracting for outside specialty legal services as needed.

• Contract with a private full-time attorney, and have an in-house staff attorney. And have an option to contract for outside specialty legal services as needed.

The school district's in-house attorney would serve at school board meetings and provide general legal advice. Day-to-day legal service would be performed by outside counsel at an agreed-upon hourly rate with fixed office hours.

• Contract with a private attorney for part-time legal work, retain a full-time, in-house lawyer and hire outside counsel as needed. The school board attorney would be restricted to serving just the school board.

• Contract a private part-time school board attorney, while keeping a full-time in-house lawyer for general legal advice and a full-time, in-house staff attorney for day-to-day legal services, while hiring outside specialty counsel as needed. This option provides full-time counsel for the superintendent and staff, and avoids costs associated with outsourcing legal services involving employee discipline matters.

Superintendent Rick Mills supports the fourth option because outsourcing costs exceed in-house expenses. However, school board members said they need more time for review of all options.

School board vice chairwoman Julie Aranibar said she wants to compare a similar county's legal services.

"I want to keep the process as simple as possible," Aranibar said.

School board members said a 27-page document for selecting a legal service is too complicated.

School board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner said that having an in-house legal department would be more efficient.

"We need services right here to be down the hall to review contracts, employee behavior, etc." Miner said.

The school board also wants to refrain from adding more people at the top yo hold down costs.

"Outside counsel costs twice as much as an in-house attorney," Carpenter said.

The school board is also debating whether to hire one or two full-time staff attorneys.

"The attorney has an ethical obligation to represent entity and not any individual," said school board attorney John Bowen. "My recommendation, for what is worth, is to provide legal advice to the organization as one entity."

Bowen said this is not the only way, but it has worked well. Bowen recommends one legal voice for advice and services, as is generally done in corporate America.

The minimum qualifications for legal positions are a law degree from an accredited law school, license to practice law in Florida and good standing with the Florida Bar for at least five years.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081

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