Manatee School Board settles on legal representation

eearl@bradenton.comJune 10, 2013 

MANATEE COUNTY -- In choosing a law firm for the district Monday, the Manatee County School Board said its top concerns involved expertise in education laws, familiarity with charter school laws, board policies and compensation.

The school board voted 3-2 to hire the firm of Dye, Dietrich, Petruff and St. Paul. It took two votes for the board to get a majority.

The school board held public interviews with attorneys from Dye, Dietrich, Petruff and St. Paul; Blalock Walters; Lewis, Longman and Walker; and Kendra Presswood -- all of Bradenton.

School board Vice Chairwoman Julie Aranibar said an incoming attorney must have experience with charter school law and board relations.

"We are about to enter uncharted waters," Aranibar said.

James Dye from the winning firm told the board his firm has the experience necessary and works as a team.

"We would work with the school district; it would not just be a lawyer dealing with it," Dye said. "It is a multi-headed approach that has highly technical requirements."

Patricia Petruff said she

has experience with charter laws.

"I am intimately familiar, and helped negotiate the Just for Girls contract," Petruff said.

When it comes to kindergarten through 12th-grade law, Dye said he has experience as a parent, but not a lot as a lawyer.

"What we bring to the table is experience that overlaps with local government and school board law," Dye said. "All new clients have unique issues. Learning law is the shorter leg of the learning curve. Applying the law for the client's benefit is where the magic kicks in."

Aranibar owes legal fees for a public records incident last fall to Dye, Dietrich, Petruff and St. Paul. When district approval to pay the fees was denied, Aranibar worked out a payment plan with the firm.

Aranibar suggested the board hold a separate special meeting to negotiate contracts with the firm, and Carpenter and Gause agreed.

"We have to think about the total cost of service and what that firm is going to do," Gause said.

The board will discuss a contract with the firm at a special 3 p.m. meeting June 24 and set June 26 as a back-up date just in case a deal is not reached before Bowen retires June 30 as school board attorney.

The attorneys not chosen all made strong pitches.

Mark Barnebey of Blalock and Walters said all members of his firm would be available for consultation if chosen. Barnebey has experience in the role of school board attorney.

Kevin Hennessy of Lewis, Longman and Walker said seeing things differently is the firm's credo.

Kendra Presswood, in Maui on vacation, participated in the interview via Skype. Presswood said she has experience in human resources law, but is not experienced in K-12 law.

"I applied for the labor and employment part, which seems to be the majority of the issues," Presswood said.

Legal fees are another school board concern. School board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner said it is not "a time to be fair" with negotiating rates.

"We do not have money to be fair," Miner said. "We are doing significant belt-tightening."

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

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