School board to pay law firm $243,000

Fee includes costs from lawsuits over alcohol policy

June 09, 1999|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

After spending months embroiled in a string of unusual lawsuits, Carroll County's Board of Education agreed yesterday to pay $243,275 in legal fees to a Baltimore law firm -- and then voted to rehire the attorneys for another year.

The school board unanimously approved during its regular meeting the payment of legal fees that have accrued since last year to Blum Yumkas Mailman Gutman & Denick. The sum includes $40,000 to defend federal and state circuit court lawsuits over the system's strict policy on underage drinking after 12 Westminster High School students were barred from extracurricular activities because they attended a party where other teens were drinking alcohol. That suit was dismissed after three days of testimony.

Superintendent William H. Hyde said an additional $70,000 was paid to the firm for "legal costs and staffing" issues that arose last year. The board then voted to extend a $115,000 retainer to the firm for next year's costs.

"I want to answer where does the money go," Hyde said, "so you can gain a sense of how those costs are driven."

School officials are also being sued over numerous issues relating to school construction: two lawsuits from a Towson contractor over Cranberry Station Elementary School; a lawsuit and possible state penalties for building Francis Scott Key High School's wastewater treatment plant without required state environmental and construction permits; and a suit over destruction of a private driveway during construction at Key.

With no staff attorneys, the school board has relied on the Baltimore firm since the late 1960s, said Vernon Smith, assistant superintendent for administration. Last year's legal costs for general construction totaled $46,000.

Overall, the legal fees were higher than those in the previous fiscal year, which Smith said totaled $232,000. In 1996, the board paid $176,000 in legal fees.

Board members, who held numerous closed meetings to discuss the legal problems during the winter, did not comment on the fees except to laud the law firm for its representation.

"I am extremely pleased with the breadth and depth of this firm and the expertise of each attorney," said board member C. Scott Stone.

In another matter, a grass-roots parents group demanded that board members immediately begin a systemwide audit in the wake of the construction problems and lawsuits as a way to ease tension between the board and Carroll's commissioners.

"A new battle is now waging," said Susan Ullrich, co-chair of Citizens for Schools. "Your integrity is on the line, and the only way to prove yourselves as a board is to agree to the audit."

Last month, the commissioners cut $2.8 million in school funding for fiscal 2000, withholding $1 million from the education budget until the school board agreed to hire an independent contractor to conduct a systemwide performance audit.

Carroll's public schools have never ordered a systemwide performance audit but have conducted piecemeal audits of its facilities, maintenance, transportation, personnel and food-service departments.

"It's time to fold our cards in this poker game and allow the commissioners to win," Ullrich said. "Future budget negotiations with the commissioners are only going to get uglier. We need to remember why we are here in the first place for the children of Carroll County."

Board members charged the commissioners with making the issue "political."

"The accusations placed against the school system are not founded," Stone said.

Board member Joseph Mish said, "I am always in favor of performance audits, but I want independent auditors from outside the system and the commissioners' office. With them sending in their auditors, that's like sending in your mother-in-law to audit your marriage."

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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