DeKalb legal spending out of control

AJC writers Nancy Badertscher and Ty Tagami are reporting today that DeKalb is outspending all other area districts on legal fees. In fact, DeKalb spends more on legal fees than Gwinnett, Cobb and Fulton combined.

Check out this chart compiled by the AJC staff:

Buy a Sunday paper or read more here>> DeKalb school system spends more than other systems on legal expenses

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34 Responses to DeKalb legal spending out of control

  1. @midvaledad: We are seriously wondering if all legal bills have been reported as received, or if some are simply waiting to be ‘opened’.

  2. Stan Jester says:

    The AJC honed in on a comment that caught my attention as well. Referring to Josie Alexander & Assoc. and Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, Dr. Mark Elgart said at the DCSD Board Meeting With SACS, There is no other urban school system in just the metro area that has two law firms on retainer. This is an area where we are going to expect significant change and improvement.

    Josie Alexander & Assoc. is relatively small and only handles HR issues. Josie can neither handle the scope nor the size of the DCSD legal work, so will Mr. Thurmond ditch the “African American representation”? What will SACS say if we don’t migrate to one law firm be it Sutherland or some other law firm?

    BTW, I can’t tell the editors at DSW “Thank You” enough for all your hard work on this blog. Thank you!!

  3. concernedmom30329 says:

    Not just more than DeKalb, those systems spend 6 times less than DCSS.
    An underlying question is have the bills been audited, I suspect not….

  4. From the article:

    Zepora Roberts, who was on the school board when the two firms were hired, said one firm could have done the job but “we wanted to make sure we had some African-American representation, so we split it in half.” Josie Alexander of Alexander & Assoc. is black.

    Still, Roberts conceded Elgart’s point about legal costs.

    “A lot of that money we have spent on legal should have gone to the classroom,” she said.

    This is an example of why we are where we are. At least the voters of her district had the good sense to vote Zepora out.

  5. Viola Davis says:

    Thank You for the excellent reporting. The taxpayers and voters need information on how our tax dollars are wasted. Keep up the excellent work.

  6. Concerned Citizen says:

    For me, it’s simple to understand: DeKab’s legal fees are bigger because DeKalb is the most messed up system with its corrupt and evil leadership and then the huge lack of caring about teachers and students.

  7. midvaledad says:

    Ty was being conservative. The county had been billed for over $8 million in legal fees as of March 31. With 3 months left in the fiscal year and an average of $900,000 per month it is likely legal fees could be $10.5 million.

    Also, if you look at the Vendor Spends report part of the monthly financial report for tomorrow’s BOE meeting you see the county hasn’t paid $1,384,000 of those bills. Some of the unpaid invoices are over 90 days old. Are Mr. Thurmond and Mr. Perrone waiting until after July 1, to pay bills to make this year’s budget LOOK better? It wouldn’t surprise me.

    Didn’t DCSD have one law firm quit on them last fall?

  8. midvaledad says:

    @Viola Davis I sent an email to Restore DeKalb for Mr. Willie Pringle. I can not make it to the transportation open house to speak to him directly. Can you forward it to him for me? Thanks.

  9. 10s1dach says:

    When I saw the amount per student spent $94.00 on legal fees, it made me sick. Just imagine if half of that was spent per pupil on books, supplies, and technology needed to move students forward in the classroom. Most Art and Music budgets don’t receive any funding from the county. How can a quality Art program operate on a budget coming from $1.00 per student? The county is paying elementary band teachers to teach 7 students because the rest of them can’t afford to rent or purchase instruments. Most of the Art and Music money comes from PTA budgets that are also struggling.
    I applaud all the in depth reporting to open everyone’s eyes to what’s really going on. I do see the light at the end of the tunnel but it will take a while. Our teachers, parents and communities are getting involved and want change. We will fight! If we can’t stand up for our children who will? We can’t rely on just the Board and DCSS admin to do it.

  10. Not sure if the statement about more than the three other systems combined is accurate, but point is still a good one. Unless you meant the average of the three other systems combined compared to the average per student in DeKalb? Maybe better to have said, in 2012 alone, the total spending on legal in DeKalb was almost equivelent to the amount spend on legal in Gwinnett, Cobb and Fulton Counties combined. (btw, does that include APS or exclude them?) Thanks!

    Also, this legal spending is a reason Marshall Orson stated that the school board is being careful with how they handle the cell tower contracts. I don’t think anyone would mind if we actually spent money on legal in an effort to help the children, protect their school grounds or protect our home values. We’re tired of them spending our money to both prosecute and defend themselves in ridiculous battles that only come from too many hands in the cookie jar!

  11. For an eye-opener on just how long we’ve been duped into thinking they were reducing legal costs, read this post from the old blog:

    Mr. Bowen noted that the sole purpose of this meeting was to receive information from the Superintendent, as requested by the Board in a previous meeting, regarding the Flat Rate Fee Proposal for Legal Services. He reminded the Board that during the August 28, 2009 called meeting, fee proposals were submitted by Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates, for services in their respective areas of assignment. At that time, the Board asked the Superintendent to meet with both firms to request a reduction of fees and to bring back a reduced proposal from both firms.

    Dr. Lewis reaffirmed that during the called meeting on Friday, August 28, 2009, the Board of Education charged him with moving forward to begin negotiations of flat rate fees with the newly appointed General Counsel – Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander and Associates. He also reaffirmed that both firms had previously submitted their proposed flat rate fees, however, given the current financial challenges of the school district, the Board felt that both firms’ proposed fees were too high. Dr. Lewis stated that during the negotiation period, he spoke with both firms individually to talk about their flat rate fees and the Board’s objective to save money given the current state of the economy and budget challenges. During those discussions, each firm was provided with a copy of the school district’s legal fees from the past two fiscal years, as well as fees for the immediate past calendar year, which averaged approximately $3 – $3.2 million dollars. Dr. Lewis concluded that both firms – Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates have now submitted their final flat rate fee proposals for the Board’s consideration.

    November 10, 2009 at 7:21 PM

  12. continuing…

    Mr. Womack moved to accept the sole source bid of $1.7million from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. The motion was seconded by Mr. McChesney.

    After concerns were expressed by several Board Members, …. Discussions ensued.

    Dr. Walker questioned if any of the legal fees paid during the past two years include monies paid for any current complex litigation, (i.e. the Dunaire case, Heery Mitchell or action recently taken against the DeKalb Development Authority). Mr. Turk responded, “no.”

    Ms. Roberts asked for clarification as to how Workers’ Compensation cases are handled? And, at what point are the cases referred to General Counsel. Mr. Turk stated that an employee in the Department of Risk Management handles all Workers’ Compensation cases. He concluded by saying that if a case cannot be resolved internally and requires litigation, then it is referred to General Counsel.

    Dr. Walker asked who is Drew, Eckl & Farnham. Mr. Turk responded that this is the firm that Workers’ Compensation cases are currently referred to once the case goes to litigation.

    Mr. Redovian requested clarification on the motion made by Mr. Womack.

    Mr. Womack moved to accept the $1.7million from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan as sole source General Counsel for all legal services, with the exception of complex litigation. Mr. McChesney seconded the motion.

    Mr. Cunningham vehemently expressed concern with eliminating Alexander & Associates after the Board had previously voted to retain their services for specific assigned areas of legal services. He stated that Alexander & Associates had not been given an opportunity to provide a sole source bid and that unless both firms were afforded the same opportunity, a sole source bid should not be accepted from Sutherland. Dr. Walker echoed this sentiment.

    Mr. Bowen clarified what choices the Board has at its disposal. He noted that the Board can choose to accept or reject Mr. Womack’s motion, and if the Board does not accept Mr. Womack’s motion, then the Board can go back to the original recommendation from the Superintendent to consider the proposals submitted by both firms.

    Mr. Cunningham suggested an amended motion. He moved that the Board accept and approve $1.7million for services from both Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates. Mr. Cunningham noted that if the fee rate of $1.7 million does not work for both firms, then the Board should re-direct the Superintendent to go back and re-negotiate the flat rate fee with both firms. Dr. Walker seconded the amended motion.

    Mr. Redovian reminded the Board that during the last meeting on legal services, he inquired if the Board was voting on firms and fees. He stated that the response from the Chair indicated firms only. Mr. Cunningham reiterated that it was also his understanding that no dollar amount had been provided to either firm or to the Superintendent to work with. Mr. Bowen reminded the Board that the Request for Qualifications was for qualifications only and that the RFQ did not require any of the firms to include cost for legal services in their responses.

  13. continuing again

    Dr. Lewis stated that the Board had charged him with negotiating the flat rate fee with both firms and agreed that no specific dollar amount to work with had been given to him or to either firm. He also stated that he was only asked to come back with a recommendation that provided a cost savings to the District.

    … Mr. Womack moved to end discussion and call the question. Mr. Redovian seconded the motion, and with a 3\6 vote, with Mr. McChesney, Mr. Womack and Mr. Redovian voting yes; and Dr. Walker, Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Bowen, Ms. Copelin-Wood and Dr. Speaks voting no, the motion failed. … Discussions ensued.

    Dr. Walker again expressed opposition with moving forward and not providing Alexander & Associates an opportunity to submit a sole source bid. He asked that no action be taken at this time and tabled for a future meeting.

    Mr. Redovian expressed concern with and opposed accepting bids from both firms that could possibly total more than the lowest bid submitted. Mr. McChesney agreed.

    Ms. Roberts stated that the Board should consider accepting or rejecting the bids from both firms in the amount of $2.4 million. She asked what would be the total savings if both bids were accepted. Dr. Lewis stated that it would be a savings of $1.3 million if the Board voted on a 10-month contract or a savings of $600,000 if the Board voted on a 12-month contract. Ms. Roberts stated that either would be less than what the District paid in the last year for all legal services. Ms. Copelin-Wood inquired as to what firm currently handles Special Education cases? Dr. Lewis stated that Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan are now handling Special Education cases. He further stated that a transition recommendation on all cases previously handled by other firms has been submitted by Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan for consideration. Ms. Copelin-Wood also inquired as to whether legal fees for Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan would be negotiated at the conclusion of this contractual period. Dr. Lewis answered yes; fees would be negotiated for both firms at this end of the contractual period.

    Ms. Copelin-Wood asked that Mr. Cunningham’s motion be repeated. Mr. Bowen stated that Mr. Cunningham moved that the Board accept and approve $1.7million for services for both Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Alexander & Associates. Mr. Cunningham also noted that if this fee rate does not work for both firms, then the Board should re-direct the Superintendent to go back and re-negotiate the flat rate fee with both firms. Mr. Bowen stated that Dr. Walker seconded the amended motion. Mr. Bowen also repeated the original motion made by Mr. Womack – that the Board accepts the $1.7million from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan as sole source General Counsel for all legal services with the exception of complex litigation. Mr. McChesney seconded the motion.

    Ms. Copelin-Wood inquired as to whether we had data to show what other school districts are paying for legal services. Dr. Lewis answered, “no.” Ms. Copelin-Wood also expressed concern with the motion made by Mr. Womack to eliminate Alexander & Associates as Board Counsel. She also stated that the Board had already voted to retain the services of both firms, and she believes that the motion presented by Mr. Womack now undermines action previously taken by the Board.

    Ms. Roberts stated that good legal representation is not cheap. She further stated that if both of the motions on the floor should fail, the Board should consider and vote to approve the $2.4 million submitted by both firms. Ms. Roberts also inquired as to what the Board should anticipate from Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan in terms of fees for the next year. Dr. Lewis stated that he could not predict if there would be a fee increase from either of the firms.

  14. and lastly,

    Dr. Speaks also inquired as to whether the Board should expect an increase in fees from both firms for the next year. Mr. Bowen stated that fees would be re-negotiated for legal services, regardless of who the providers would be.

    Mr. Cunningham reminded the Board that the initial recommendation of the Legal Ad Hoc Committee suggested that the Board should re-evaluate the legal services and determine if changes would be necessary after a two-year period.

    Dr. Walker stated that he felt Mr. Womack’s motion was out of order and not consistent with the directive of the Board to the Superintendent. He asked that the motion be withdrawn.

    After a brief dialogue, Mr. Bowen called the question on the amended motion made by Mr. Cunningham.

    With a vote of 6\3, with Dr. Walker, Mr. Cunningham, Ms. Roberts, Mr. Bowen, Ms. Copelin-Wood and Mr. Redovian voting yes; and Mr. McChesney, Mr. Womack and Dr. Speaks voting no, the amended motion passed.


    Ella Smith, who lost the race for school board super district 9 to Eugene Walker wrote this post:
    Tuesday, October 6, 2009
    The School Board Needs To Make Decisions Based On What Is Best For the School System Now in the 21st Century

  16. And then, here is a good historical post on the dysfunction of our former board members – the ones preceding the ones who were recently fired by the Governor (which punished a couple of very good board members for the sins of their co-members and past members).

    Sunday, October 31, 2010
    Things to remember at the polls

  17. @Cell: According the the chart produced by Ty and Nancy, the COMBINED total spent on legal fees for Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett is $5,366,986. The total spent by DeKalb alone is $9,236,674 – really, nearly double. And then, when you divide it by the number of students in each category, the per pupil cost is wildly out of proportion – as the COMBINED spent on legal fees for Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett per pupil is $15, while DeKalb alone spends $94 per pupil on legal fees – nearly four times as much.

    Read the AJC article in full here:

    Or go out and buy a copy of today’s paper for more…

  18. I was looking at the actuals.

  19. I actually look forward to the Sunday paper now so I can read about how many new ways I’m getting screwed over than I previously suspected. Thanks AJC for limiting the shock to only once per week. I don’t think my heart can take it in more frequently doses than that!

  20. walk to school says:

    This is 2013. Are there no law firms in the Atlanta area with enough diversity, expertise and size to handle the DCSS account?

  21. The irony is, that Sutherland (the other law firm hired to split the work with Josie Alexander) has many more African-American attorneys on staff than Alexander law firm does. Sutherland is quite diverse.

  22. John Dewey III says:

    So DeKalb is about five million dollars over the regional average for lawyers’ fees. Do the math: Five million dollars divided by 5,000 teachers? Each teacher could have had a one thousand dollar bonus….. “Victory in every Courtroom!”

  23. frustrated souther dekalb teacher says:

    “huge lack of caring teachers”?! well, thanks a lot. i have been working with your kids for almost twenty years, buying classroom supplies, books, food, etc. I’ve help some of my students’ families buy groceries, pay utility bills, etc. And all this on a county that has cut my pay 12.9% in the last 3 years. In fact, for almost ten years, I have worked a part-tiome job to make my own ends meet. And it’s all worth it because I know parents appreciate us and care about what we do?! Sheesh! I can’t read this blog anymore – you all whine about what is wrong with dekalb, but you don’t stand up for the people on the front lines, you just arm-chair coach about what should be done.

  24. dekalbite2 says:

    “When I saw the amount per student spent $94.00 on legal fees, it made me sick”

    Cost Centers in DeKalb need to be broken down into how much per pupil a service costs to deliver. Look at these two cost centers – Security and Maintenance – to see how they compare with other school systems including demographically comparable systems:

    If a cost center is out of line per pupil with what other systems spend, then that cost center needs to be brought in line with the other school systems.

    Finance has been one of the the weakest links in DeKalb under the last 3 superintendents, and this has in turn been devastating in terms of student achievement. Taxpayers/parents must insist that Mr. Thurmond evaluates our cost centers in terms of per pupil expenditure and executes a plan that has puts our cost centers on an even keel with other metro school systems.

  25. Insider says:

    I wonder why don’t we have out own in-house counsel (legal department)? We would have to pay them handsomely, but wouldn’t that be cheaper than open-ended, unlimited billing from outside law firms?

  26. Very good points frustrated. There are so many wonderful teachers in DeKalb – no one should paint all teachers with a broad brush – they are each very different. That’s why it’s so difficult to ‘standardize’ education – and why it’s such a bad idea. [On another note: You should be aware that many of the bloggers who run and contribute to this blog spent many years on the frontlines of the school system – many as extraordinary volunteers – some as employees. We are ‘doers’ – and don’t appreciate the generalizations any more than you.]

    I can attest to the fact that many DeKalb teachers also hold down a second job. I have bumped into 3 recently just out shopping and in local businesses. Teachers are struggling – and parents – you have no business allowing teachers to pay the way for your child – CHIP IN! I get so very frustrated when parents refuse to even donate $5 to the PTA or send in supplies to their child’s classroom. There is NO excuse. If you can’t afford to pay for even the most basic of supplies, you really should never have children. That said, I also know of many parents who – regardless of the fact that they struggle, manage to do whatever they can to take care of their children and support their teachers. It’s a choice. And it shows character or a lack thereof.

  27. concernedmom30329 says:

    frustrated so. DeKalb teacher, you need to reread that post,

    Here is what it said…DeKab’s legal fees are bigger because DeKalb is the most messed up system with its corrupt and evil leadership and then the huge lack of caring about teachers and students.

    You missed the word ABOUT.

  28. Another comment says:

    I stopped being a Room Parent, when I saw how the mostly African American parents thought that they were entitled to have everything “free” in school. They could not even send in a $1 donation for the Black teacher, who was the most racist teacher I have ever encounter and favored their own kids. They figured the Whites would pay for it, the whites would volunteer. I saw it then. I see it now. Even though my daughter goes to a conversion charter, with so called mandatory volunteer hours. The only people I ever see volunteering are predominately white. Ok, there is maybe one black mother and one set of black grandparents but that is it. What would the school do, if it was not for the 23% of the White parents that were left.

  29. @ frustrated so. dekalb teacher

    Please go back and re-read what concernedmom30329 said. Referring to DeKalb County School System, she noted a “huge lack of caring ABOUT teachers and students.” we think you will find that most everyone on this blog truly cares about our teachers. We want to help you. But, you and your colleagues must help us help you. You are on the inside. We are not. Tell us what you know about the corruption and the incompetence. We must have specifics to investigate — names, dates, places, incidents. Read over Georgia’s Open Records Act — think about what documents you can tell us to ask for. We will ask for and obtain the documents and other evidence without ever revealing why we are asking. And, we keep your identity confidential. We work quietly behind the scenes.

  30. Melvin asked to move the Executive Session that was supposed to have been before this to after this… now they will start the work session. [This has made for an exhausting day…]

  31. Inspiration without action is meaningless. – Jim McMahan

    Asking the Board and Super and Administration as well as parents and stakeholders to help us help the children of DeKalb County by taking action today and going forward. Specifically, send us your comments on the budget. Ask for as much detail – just ask – take part. Give us input on the strategic plan. Be a part of the process. I’ll take action and pledge allegiance to our flag…

  32. May 5-11 TEACHER APPRECIATION WEEK — Please – do something nice for your child’s teacher!!

  33. Concerned Citizen says:

    This board meeting is a mess. MJ can’t even read notes . Said. “the board need to sit out front.” and “the American Coun cil Society” The whole setup is a mockery of education and teaching.

  34. howdy1942 says:

    I am also sickened by the information provided in the AJC’s Sunday article. I just hope that the AJC continues to inform the public about the extent of the mess that is the DeKalb County School System.

    Just the amount of the legal expenses of the system is an excellent indicator of just how bad this system has been managed. So much legal expense tells all of us that there is confusion, dysfunction, incompetence, failure to get informed about the issues, inability to negotiate and communicate, and sloppiness in the conduct, management, and governance of school board. Frankly, I thought King and Spaulding was above the kind of conduct cited in the article. People should be paid for what they do, but not for what they don’t do.

    I was also stunned – just stunned that a board member would even suggest that a second law firm be included just because they are owned by African Americans. That runs counter to every motivation of the civil rights movement and clearly contradicts our laws. Decisions should be based on merit – not race. I thought that was the very point of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago.

    I recently attended the April 30 meeting that discussed potential cityhood for Tucker and was very impressed by the speakers to include the DeKalb County Police Chief and members of his staff. Our Police Department and Fire Department appear to be well managed. Although I’ve disagreed with many of their decisions, particularly when Vernon Jones was in office, I’m generally satisfied with the Commissioners. The School System is entirely another matter. I could not be more dissatisfied, unhappy, frustrated, and just plain mad. We need a new way to select our school board. Candidates are generally listed at the end of the ballot and generally are elected based on who they know and who their friends are. That is simply not the way to govern the system by which our children are educated. Right now, I support cityhood. We can complete the study, we can get this matter on the ballot for the November 2014 election and, if we don’t like the school board members that are elected in July 2014, then we can move toward becoming a city. That is an important first step in gaining control of our local schools. We could choose to retain the current police and fire protection and choose three other services to provide ourselves. One way or the other, we must take every action to avoid ever again being subjected to the likes of the previous school board.

    Keep up the good work, AJC, and thank you.

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