Wait, WHAT?

Schoolhouse by Nicholas_T @ Flickr

Schoolhouse by Nicholas_T @ Flickr

From the Letters to the Editor section of the Jacksonville Daily News (bold in the original):

BOE’s attorney fees need more scrutiny

To the editor:

If the recent action by the Onslow County Board of Education in regard to the board attorney’s contract isn’t sufficient evidence that the citizens of this county are being fleeced, read on.

Until July, Alex Erwin was employed by the board under a self-renewing contract guaranteeing him an $11,250 per month retainer for a minimum of 75 hours of legal services with a maximum of 100 billable hours in any one month. For the past several years, Erwin has never failed to maximize the total billable amount and has in fact constantly carried forward hours he indicated were in excess of his billable amount.

This has landed him checks totaling $180,000 each year. During the July meeting, the board voted to increase Erwin’s monthly billable threshold to 125 hours, giving him a $45,000 per year raise and extending his contract until 2012. This is more than many teachers in our county are paid annually.

(Continued below the fold.)

The history of this business is what makes it so distasteful to me and others. For several months in early 2007, former board member JoAnn Holland made numerous requests of the board chairman to add Erwin’s contract to the meeting agenda before it automatically self-renewed per the contract’s 60-day notification clause. The contract stipulated that the board must act prior to April 30, 2007, to prevent an automatic renewal. How convenient that not one other board member would support Holland’s efforts prior to May. The board went on to extend Erwin’s contract until 2010, although the context of the meeting minutes is highly questionable as to exactly who instructed Erwin to rewrite his contract or if this was the board’s intent at all at that time. Politics is at play here, not the legal services the board is receiving.

Wake up, Onslow County. Our citizens must pay closer attention to the actions of the Board of Education. All of you parents who are perplexed as to why your child has to board a school bus at the crack of dawn to ride over an hour to a school that starts at 7:10 a.m. should realize that your school system leadership thinks more of their attorney than they do of providing sufficient quantities of school buses to accommodate our children, while allowing more schools to start and dismiss simultaneously.

After reviewing over 100 pages of Erwin’s itemized billing records, it’s clear that the administration is allowing the attorney to run the school system. According to Erwin’s billing records, dozens upon dozens of school employees have called the board attorney to ask questions for which the school system has been billed at the rate of $150 per hour. It seems to me that these questions should be directed to a limited number of central office staff members better able to use discretionary wisdom with these issues, or ultimately to the superintendent, as many of these issues do not require legal advice. After all, this is part of what these folks are paid for. Some smarter oversight of this matter would greatly reduce the number of hours for which the attorney is able to bill.

Curtis Pittman


Please tell me that Mr. Pittman is mistaken on these numbers and the BOE did not just give the attorney a $45K hike in allowable fees, knowing that we’re on the verge of a desperate shortage of space, materials, and teachers when the Marine Corps starts flooding the area with 11,000 Marines, their families, plus civilian support staff and their families, in the next few years.

The district is just now finishing up a huge and expensive expansion to all the district’s schools, which is already inadequate to meet the needs of the current student population.

From whence came the art:

That image is titled Schoolhouse by Nicholas_T, and is licensed by the artist under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

7 Responses to “Wait, WHAT?”

  1. Thomas Brock Says:

    Oh it’s true, Lou, it’s true.

    The Onslow County Board of Education is the single most corrupt group around here.

    All these new schools being built are already over-populated. There’s no planning to the future from these clowns.

    If you want to know the worst part: Their management of employees is even worse than their management of the tax dollars they’re provided.

    And yet, the majority of the Board is the same group that’s been in charge for years…How’s that working out for us?

  2. Lou FCD Says:

    I had no idea it was that bad, Thomas.

  3. carlsonjok Says:

    Well, being married to an attorney, let me point out a few things that are not obvious. First, $150 for a billable hour is not excessive for an attorney. In fact, the best attorney’s bill out at multiples of that number. That, in itself, is not the key point. The key point is that $150 per hour does not go directly to the attorney’s pocket. That money also pays office staff, office costs (rent, utilities, supplies, etc), all charges associated with Westlaw usage for research(which is expensive), as we.
    In fact, I would hazard to guess that the attorney probably actually pockets a third or less of that $150.

  4. Lou FCD Says:

    Thanks for the info, Carlson. It’s helpful to put that in context.

    Nevertheless, in a system about to be inundated, a system already using “temporary” trailers to house students despite just finishing up a huge expansion project on nearly every school in the district, it seems that $45K could have been better spent. It’s enough to hire one and a half (desperately needed) teachers in our district. (Although the logistics of hiring a half a teacher might be complicated.)

    There are several classes at White Oak High School that may not bring home text books, because there is one set of books shared between several sections.

    There are nice new Science labs at Hunter’s Creek Middle School that have no/insufficient equipment to actually, y’know, do labs.

    I’m not opposed to a school district attorney being well compensated, it’s a vitally important job. (Especially considering how very close I’ve already come to filing a First Amendment suit myself, and with James just starting at the high school where the original problem popped up, it may yet happen.)

    It’s a matter of priorities, and it doesn’t seem to me to be a wise use of the money, given the circumstances.

    Even taking your figure as a given, that means the attorney was pocketing $60K annually, and that will now increase to $75K, in a district where teachers start at $30K, where there is a shortage of teachers, where there is a shortage of classroom space, where there is a shortage of classroom materials, and where these problems are about to get exponentially worse.

  5. Betul Says:

    That is one church-looking-schoolhouse.

  6. Lou FCD Says:

    Hi Betul. Thanks for stopping by.

    Oddly enough, it was the least church-looking one-room schoolhouse I found at Flickr.

  7. Betul Says:

    They are trying to tell us something…

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