Whoa! Thurmond settled the Heery case for $7.5 million. The board approved. Case closed.

Earlier today we posted an article stating that we heard rumors of settlement talks in the school system’s civil case with Heery Construction. To read it, and catch up on the history of the case, click this link >> Are we on the road to a settlement with Heery Mitchell?

Fast forward a few short hours to this evenings monthly Board meeting, where the motion to accept a settlement was put forth by Michael Thurmond and approved by the Board with very, very little discussion. In fact, the monetary amount was not disclosed except for a slip of the tongue by Michael Thurmond when he said “We can put the $7 million back into the schools.”

It’s very surprising – actually shocking – that they settled for so little, considering the initial amount of the school system’s counterclaim was $100 million! And in our earlier post, we linked to a recent news article that stated that on April 2nd, Judge Stanley Birch, a special master assigned to the case eliminated the majority of Heery’s claim against the district and dismissed the idea that the Heery case was related to the pending matters of Dr. Lewis and Ms. Reid. Judge Birch later reduced DeKalb’s claims to $33.5 million. We were expecting them to settle somewhere closer to $30 million – certainly not less than $10 million!

Oh boy. As always, the only real winner here in the end was King & Spalding. And maybe Heery’s attorney, DLA Piper.

Read more >>

School superintendent negotiates settlement in expensive legal battle

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93 Responses to Whoa! Thurmond settled the Heery case for $7.5 million. The board approved. Case closed.

  1. Gregory Walker says:

    The amounts seem pretty standard, actually, for a settlement (DCSS’s counter claims were wildly inflated). And, yes, the only ones truly winning in the end are the lawyers. The one thing I’ll give Thurmond credit for is that he’s removed the 2 biggest hangovers he inherited, in a reasonable amount of time as well (yes, it took more than 2 days, but these things just don’t move as fast as people tend to think they should). Quite honestly, isn’t that what we expected? And, if we were to do another Superintendent search soon, I think it makes the position far more attractive to good, qualified candidates (board’s replaced; lawsuits settled; some chance to move on). So, criticize the amounts if you must, but it’s a good thing for the system overall.

  2. curious says:

    As I wrote in the prior post, this is a net loss to the system of more than $10 million, given the amount of legal fees and costs we’ve paid. That doesn’t even include the cost of the man hours of the system’s employees put into this boondoggle. I guess it’s better to end it now, even at such a high cost.

  3. Insider says:

    Thurmond’s getting things done. Whether he’s doing the right things is a whole other discussion.

  4. midvaledad says:

    I watched Paul Womack’s rant at the BOE meeting last night. If it made him that mad it can’t be all bad. I wonder if he was getting a kickback from one of the law firms.

  5. DeKalb Inside Out says:

    Midvaledad, do you disagree with something Paul Womack said?

  6. hopespringseternal says:

    This rabbit should never have been chased down the hole this far. Whatever we think about who was right or wrong, governmental entities must always perform the unsavory task of a cost-benefit analysis. District attorneys do it all the time, even when someone has been hurt or killed. Yet the previous boards stubbornly pressed on because it was OPM — other people’s money. In the end, this was what should have happened years ago — both sides admitting some right and not admitting some wrong. Instead, lives and livelihoods have been ruined because of this. Some of that ruination is irreparable — on both sides. No one here has a rock of Gibraltar to stand on. Remember, individuals were dragged into this case with individual allegations. And none of them panned out. Boards should remember that even when you think — or know — you’re right, that alone doesn’t necessarily make it justified to pursue a path to the ends of the earth. The David v Goliath strategy (DCSS v Heery) only works when both sides are equally armed. And there was no way this could have ended in a good way for either party. The need for obtuseness on both sides has been breathtaking. Finally, pending the judge’s acceptance of this settlement, we can move on.

  7. DeKalb Inside Out says:

    According to Don McChesney’s blog, at the request of the court, a “special master” was brought in to review the claims brought by Heery and DeKalb. Judge Stanley Birch, the special master, threw out Heery’s claim and said the Dekalb School District’s claim to $33.5 million was valid.

    Soooooooo … what am I missing here? DeKalb settled for $7.5 million??

  8. @hopespringseternal – I’m not certain who you are referring to whose lives and livelihoods were ruined due to the Heery case. You may be confusing this case with the criminal case against Crawford Lewis, Pat Pope and Tony Pope. These are two separate cases. The Heery case is strictly a civil case — it was about the construction contracts. The Lewis and Pope case was in criminal court – with criminal charges for racketeering.

  9. @midvaledad: Actually, Paul was pointing out that it was Marshall Orson who may have the connections. He got a $500 campaign contribution from the DLA Piper law firm lawyer (the firm representing Heery) and that he also sits on a Clifton community advisory board with a VP of Heery.

    He was also emphatic that the former board as well as King & Spalding always believed they had a very strong case. The net cost after this settlement for legal expenses for DCSS is probably in the $25 million range. It’s up to the eye of the beholder if you think it was worth it to cut our losses here at $25 million or try to settle for more (ie: the $33.5 million suggested by Judge Birch) so that at least our expenses were covered.

  10. Leo says:

    Litigation is expensive, plain and simple. If this case was as much of a slam dunk as the county previously wanted us to believe, it would have been pushed to completion long ago. Sometimes, it’s better to cut your losses, get a guaranteed payment of some amount and not incur any additional legal fees related to the matter. Was this a good settlement, unless you’ve reviewed all of the evidence, no one knows (and Judge Birch essentially said if the county can prove its claim it’s worth x dollars, not they’ve proven it and should get x). As some of the other posters noted, getting this elephant off our shoulders should be viewed as a good move at this point. I’m surprised that others are so appalled, especially given all of the criticism here about attorney’s fees. This is one way to stop those fees as it relates to this matter. They certainly weren’t going to get any smaller.

  11. @curious: Again, the net loss to DCSS is probably closer to $25 million. But the tab has been paid and the decision was that it is worth it to be able to move on. It’s just kind of crazy that after asking for $100 million, they settled for well under $10 million.

    @Gregory Walker: Yes, we certainly do hope that all of these recent actions are being done with the intention of clearing the way to find and hire a highly qualified education-savvy superintendent so that we can return all of our focus on students and their teachers.

  12. Insider says:

    So we sued Heery-Mitchell for $100 million, spent $25 million in legal fees, and settled for 1/10th of what would have been left with had we won the whole amount?

  13. I think the legal fees, along with legal and court costs (special consultants, etc) was over $30 million. We settled for 7.5% of the initial counterclaim. If we had been awarded around $34 million as suggested by the judge who was hired as “special master“, we would have netted out at zero cost to the system.

    But – it’s not new money that we have to pay. We get to put $7.5 million into the account – and the $30+ million in legal fees, etc to date have all been paid in past budgets as far as we understand.

  14. hopespringseternal says:

    It is well documented in the civil case that individuals from both DCSS and Heery were dragged into the litigation. I’m anything but confused about that, and I’m not mixing it up with the criminal case. Geesh. In fact, part of that very significant April ruling by the special master included the dismissal of the DCSS individuals, but the individuals on the other side were not so dismissed.

  15. @hope: Sorry. I’m still confused though. Please enlighten me as to whose lives and livelihoods were ruined by the civil case (you don’t need to name names, but do share the stories) … also share the documentation you mentioned with us. So who was dragged into the civil case? Other than members of the boards of the past? People from the DCSS office? I’m unaware – I am really just aware of the people dragged into the criminal case. Remember, this is a community blog – the moderators don’t claim to know everything and we do rely on the community to set us straight (respectfully of course.)

  16. @ Leo: We aren’t “appalled”, just very surprised – shocked – that this case was actually settled for so little in the end.

  17. So, in Ty Tagami’s article today he says the school system spent at least $18 million on legal fees. It’s hard to know — we’ve seen so many numbers over the years…

    Read Ty’s article if you have pay wall access:
    http://www.myajc.com/news/news/local-education/major-construction-lawsuit-settled-by-dekalb-schoo/nb9Ft/?icmp=ajc_internallink_invitationbox_apr2013_ajcstub1

    Previous school boards that authorized the suit and kept paying for it “thought they had a lottery ticket,” Orson said. They gave the district’s law firm, King & Spalding, too much say over whether to settle, he said, and the lawyers pushed DeKalb to keep fighting — and paying.

    “I thought it was a fool’s errand,” said Orson, who is a lawyer himself.

    Seems Orson was not too happy with King & Spalding. We agree and have said for years that this law firm was using the school system as a feeding trough.

  18. The path to settlement was cleared in June, after accreditation problems led Gov. Nathan Deal to replace six of the nine school board members. The new board amended the district’s contract with its lawyers. King & Spalding agreed to waive $30 million in legal fees and to pay ongoing case expenses, and also agreed to take a back seat in any decisions about settlement.

    Maureen Downey wrote about the fact that the contract had been renegotiated.. but could never get the document or the details. She has a good recap on the case.

    Read the announcement here:
    http://www.ajc.com/weblogs/get-schooled/2013/jun/10/dekalb-schools-lawsuit-never-ends-few-signs-progre/

  19. howdy1942 says:

    Whatever we have spent on this case, that money is sunk costs – it is spent and should not be any consideration of what we do in the future. This case has dragged on for years – it has taken the attention of our school board and our administration away from what they should have been doing. This case was the result of poor project management on the part of the Dekalb County School System and it was absolutely incredible that we would try to get $100 million. I sincerely hope that all those associated with making this recommendation to the Board are no longer employed by Dekalb County. From my perspective, it is not worth one more penny of taxpayer money to pursue this case any further. Two comments about Mr. Womack. First, he is no longer a member of the Board – he was voted out by the 4th District. Second, that Board on which he served was dysfunctional and made numerous bad decisions and the Heery case was only one. Because of the incompetence of that Board, it’s performance was critiqued by SACS, that Board was removed by the Governor, and the Governor’s decision has now been upheld by both a Federal Court and the Georgia Supreme Court. The residents and kids in Dekalb County have paid a terrible price for what that Board did.

    I haven’t agreed with Thurmond on much of what he has done, but I support his efforts to get us free from this case, to reduce our legal expenses, and get this baggage behind us. It is simply time to move on – no one will win by pursuing this matter any further in courts.

    Now I hope that Mr. Thurmond will turn his attention to cleaning out what is a bloated administration that has made one bad recommendation after another. We need to reduce the administration headcount drastically and put that money in the classroom. I also hope that Mr. Thurmond will also work to settle that lawsuit with the teachers – that is another case that should not be in the courts.

  20. Good points Howdy. I always find that the voters themselves are to blame. There was a history of animosity between Womack and Walker that should never have made its way into the school system (again). If the voters at the time had elected the level-headed, smart opponents in that race – Shayna Steinfeld and Ernest Brown – we would be in a whole different place. Be choosy when you vote! Stand ready to research the candidates, listen to the debates and give your choice some thought. The next board will once again be elected by the people of DeKalb and we have to worry about that. January 1 of 2015 will play host to an all-new cast of DeKalb School Board characters. Let’s hope some good people decide to keep the momentum going in a positive direction.

  21. another comment says:

    Heery’s insurance Company was the one who decided that now was the time to settle. It is clear reading Heery’s statement, that the cost to go to court was more than the settlement. A big factor is that the termination was changed to termination for convience in lieu of termination for cause. Pat Reid could have had her termination for convience for less than $500,000. In fact this all could have gone away for less than $500,000.

    I believe that Heery’s Insurer pulled the plug. Otherwise the Special Master’s rulling would have been appealed. Further up in light of the convictions, Heery’s termination would have all been found related nothing other that Pat Pope/Reid wanting to enrich her self and her husband.

    I would like to know what the settlement was with Mitchell? We are all forgetting that Mitchell was the 51% partner and Heery only the 49% partner? So Did Mitchell pony up over $7million? Why wasn’t Mitchell watching the hen house? Why was only the white minority partner accused of wrong doing? Or do only white folks and white contractors pay in Dekalb County. Was this whole firring and suit over people who really think only black contractors should get any work in dekalb.

  22. Word Wall says:

    The school system should be giving Heery seven million dollars …and an apology….. for having to deal with Pat Pope and Crawford Lewis “supervising” an actual school construction job in the first place! …..Picture the convicted COO and her CEO: “fire them” …….”no, sue them” ……”no, fire them – then sue them” ….”no, fire them -then sue them – for a BILLION DOLLARS”……..Heery was basically having to deal with a Dr. Evil and Mini-Me situation.

  23. howdy1942 says:

    One thought – since this $7 million is “new” money that was not anticipated, let’s take all of it, divide it up, and give our teachers a bonus, however small that may be. No administration. No cars. No nothing. Just teachers.

    To folks who think like Womack, this case has been going on since 2006 – at least 7 years!! Clearly, there was no end in sight – just an endless trail of lawyers and costs. Let’s all let it go and learn from this mistake!

  24. True dat WW. One clarification: The DCSS lawsuit was the counter suit. After Pat Pope fired Heery, Heery filed suit asking for $500,000 in unpaid invoices and $1 million for some kind of breach. Instead of settling then for one million or less, Dr. Lewis hired a consulting firm for $3.6 million to research how to respond. The consulting company, Neilsen-Wurster/Marsh recommended that DeKalb Schools counter-sue Heery for somewhere between $85 and $120 million. This range was calculated by looking at the budgets of a handful of contracts, determining what was considered over-billing, and then using that as a multiplier for damages against all the projects completed by Heery. So the school system’s claim was the counterclaim to Heery’s claim.

  25. We agree!! In a show of good faith, distribute the found money as bonuses to teachers. Teachers only. People who teach students in a classroom only. People who are listed on the salary report as a teacher. What a nice Christmas gift – and what an easy way to raise morale a notch and show the world that DeKalb is serious about changing focus. And what a good way to elevate teachers above all other employees. Teachers are our keys to success – everyone else is their support.

  26. Fred in DeKalb says:

    I agree with Gregory Walker and Leo. There are many *facts* about this case that most of us don’t know. The ruling by Judge Birch in April gave insight regarding the direction of the settlement. My interpretation was that DeKalb had a case and Heery did not. It does not matter any more as this episode is coming to a conclusion. I think instead all the *shoulda woulda coulda*, it’s time to commend Thurmond and this Board for addressing *distractions* such as this lawsuit so they can fully focus on improving the instructional environment for our children.

    I agree with the comment that Thurmond has become a type of *corrective* superintendent, addressing the *distractions* and unpopular issues thus making it easier for an eventual superintendent to consider this job in the future. In hindsight, I believe these *distractions* may have been too much for Atkinson to overcome, especially considering the Board she had to work with. Again, this is water under the bridge and I prefer to begin looking forward.

  27. Good points Fred.

    Hopefully, we will soon be beyond all of the horrors of the mismanagement of DeKalb schools and onward to simply doing the best job possible to educate nearly 100,000 kids. Like I said, teachers are key and everyone else is support. Everyone. Else. Until we get to the place where we elevate teachers to a high level of respect and support we will not succeed.

    Thurmond is very much on the right trail in his focus on low-income students who tend to also be low-performing students. There are programs and teaching methods that can help in that arena – but the top admin needs to also recognize that these programs may not work for everyone. In fact, they may slow down others. One size does not fit all. A top-down management in a school system is not the best idea. Teachers are generally very independent, creative individuals – not robots. Given a set of guidelines and expectations, along with a full support staff and the necessary tools [which varies from teacher to teacher], they will get the job done. The teachers will get the job done.

    There’s a great post out today written by a teacher addressing the myths in education. Read it in full here >>
    The Top 7 Most Infuriating Myths About the U.S. Education System

    Relevant to this thread:

    Myth # 7. Schools Are the Only Ones Who Can Close the Achievement Gap

    Again, this goes back to the dog whistles of so-called education reform motives. Let’s begin with this: there is no achievement gap in schools. It’s an equity gap that encompasses the wealth disparities, corporate welfare, and living wage discussions. Yet, it’s easy to point fingers at education systems and shout that they have to work on the achievement gap. Well, to the extent to which we educate children each day, yes. But the way this vernacular is used isn’t helpful in the national conversation about schools.

    Take a look at what Chicago and Philadelphia did recently in their massive school closings. They hit communities who didn’t need those hard hits and made education just out of reach. … Achievement gaps exist because wealth gaps and healthcare gaps and inequity gaps exist for the parents of the students we’re teaching. If we want to address the achievement gap, we have to address all of these issues.

  28. whyaminotsurprised says:

    @DSW
    I am aware of a former DCS employee who lost their job and suffered a great deal of stress due to the Heery-Mitchell case, and was not even involved in those contract/projects. I will not provide the back story, because I can’t think of a way to describe it without providing identifying information. Suffice it to say that the depositions for the civil and criminal cases with these two cases overlapped considerably. Getting called for one deposition quickly bled into questioning for the other.

  29. dsw2contributor says:

    DSW – ” In a show of good faith, distribute the found money as bonuses to teachers. Teachers only.”

    A huge THUMBS DOWN over that comment, DSW — it is a slap in the face of all the Custodians, Secretaries, Bookkeepers, Counselors, Classroom Aides, Cafeteria workers, Bus Drivers, Assistant Principals, and Principals that work their butts off every day.

    Antoinette Tuff

  30. dsw2contributor says:

    (I screwed up my comment – the last line was supposed to say:)

    Remember, Antoinette Tuff wasn’t a teacher.

    (I am not her!)

  31. Very true dsw2. Maybe we could give small bonuses to staff as well – I just think it’s high time that this administration really make an effort to reach out to teachers before we lose even more. You can have the best darn cafeteria food and the cleanest bus on the route, but these jobs truly only exist at all to support teachers. If our teachers aren’t the best of the best, then we have problems. Sorry – but that’s the way I see it. Yes, it’s a group effort – but the group is only there to support the key players.

  32. dsw2contributor says:

    Meanwhile, the Parent of a DCS student was arrested for stealing FIVE CENTS worth of electricity from Chamblee Middle School:
    http://www.11alive.com/news/article/314666/40/Electric-car-owner-charged-with-stealing-5-cents-worth-of-juice

  33. dekalbite2 says:

    I agree with DSW. The teacher is the only employee who a “member of the classroom”. The entire system hinges on the “members of the classroom” meaning the teacher and his/her students. EVERY position including Mr. Thurmond exists to serve and support the “members of the classroom” – the teacher and his/her students.

    We have had an unacceptable rate of teacher attrition and along with an unacceptable rate of student achievement. This money should be going to restore the furlough day for teachers so they can use this to plan instruction for students. Instruction of students is the core business of the school system.

  34. That story of the ‘theft’ of a nickel’s worth of electricity is ridiculous! Especially, when these very same Chamblee Police never bothered to investigate when my son’s friend was held up at gunpoint in Chamblee by 3 teens who then stole his electric scooter. Never caught them – never followed up with the victim – never cared. That kid could have been killed. The Chamblee cops won’t venture into real danger to protect anyone – but they will pop you for plugging in your electric car!!

  35. sameoldsameold says:

    Not that I’m against rewarding either certified or classified staff, but that kind of short thinking has hurt us before. Under Ramona Tyson and the board from hell, the decision was made to give out holiday bonuses and restore furlough days adequate years ago when there was “found” money. Of course later it turned out those funds were miscalculated and people were laid off at the end of the year, classes made larger through attrition. We should be saving every penny for when the class action lawsuit over unpaid TSAs comes to pass. Which it will.

  36. another comment says:

    The $7 million dollar settlement is gone. The majority of it goes to King and Spaulding. Reread the deal they made with them several months ago. K&S gets the settlement.

    Dekalb needs to put it Legal Contract out to bid, into one contract. It looks like they need to get that firm that specializes in representing everyother school district in the area. They seem to do it at a much smaller rate. They also don’t seem to lead those other districts down a legal fees rabbit whole. That would be the Marietta law firm I am referring to.

  37. Ella says:

    This case needed to be settled. The cost of the lawsuit and the attorneys’ fees was a problem for SAC.

    DeKalb County Schools came upon a company that was willing to spend attorney fees equal to them. It is real hard to get into a urinating contest with a skunk when both skunks have access to a great deal of money. Both parties normally lose more than they gain. My late father-in-law (Judge Jack B. Smith) always adviced me not to get into a urinating contest with a skunk. However, he did not use the word urinating. The problem was that the money the past school board spent was not going into the classroom which should have been the top priority of the school board. Instead the school board was funding a big attorney firm instead. This case should have been settled to start with and there should not have been such a urinating contest. At this point it really does not matter who was right and who was wrong. There is no doubt both parties have lost a great deal of money and I suspect neither party was without fault.

    Mr. Womack may be right as to the evidence. However, the school system would have come out ahead if they had settled and had given the contractors the $500.000 they felt they were owed. I remember the school board approving spending the extra money when the budgets keep going over the bids during construction.

    It is also true that many people are sexual harassed and seriously discriminated against on their jobs also. I have always throught these things were against the law. However, 80% of all lawsuits filed like this are thrown out when they go to federal court regarding these issues. The courts do not have the ability to even hear all these cases. It is like the laws exist but are not really enforced. I think they might just not want to open up this can of worms. These individuals who have sued and I have read about recently do appear to have lost of evidence, but it really did not matter. To go into court to sue someone you normally have to spend a great deal of money which most people do not really realize or even have the ability to come up with. Most people think they have a right to sue if they have been done wrong. Coming from a family with law roots in the community I can assure you that this is not the case at all. You normally need at least $50,000 to go into federal court to defend wrongful actions like this.

    The last school board did some shady things I thought were really wrong. One of these things was the way they handled taking away the money that they were putting into a tax annuity for teachers verses paying into social security. It was particularly wrong when their own policy said they had to give their employees one year notice before they did this.

    I also strongly disagree with how the school board advertised the hearing to allow cell phone towers on school property. I do not believe we really know the effect of cell phone towers presence in school yards. There is some research present on both sides and I believe the school board should have made a decision to air on absolute when we are dealing with our children. This was a business move to help a few and in my opinion did not take into consideration our children. It had nothing to do with educating our children and really did not bring sufficient money into the school system to take such a chance.

  38. Ella says:

    I also want to comment on the 5 cents of electricty used by the parent at Chamblee.

    It is apparent that this was not about the 5 cents. It was apparently one of those urinating contests again. Charges were filed to try to make a point.

    However, it is actually funny as daily I unplug several cell phones in every class I go into. Students come to school and charge their cell phones. It does not really matter that they are not suppose to have cell phones out during the school day. They also like to charge them on the school system’s nickel.

  39. teachermom says:

    I don’t want the little check with the extra money but the thought is nice. What teachers want and need is respect, to be left alone to do their job, a restoration of step increases, the elimination of furlough days, and the restoration of our retirement fund that replaced Social Security. Better yet, put us back in to Social Security.

    The lack of respect of teachers by Central Office is part of our culture in Dekalb. At every turn over the years, we became the resources to take from financially when money was tight. They pulled every nickel away from us they could and then they started cutting our salary itself via furlough days. Meanwhile padding the office with over paid secretaries and buying cars. The only gesture towards us was to send out cookies and apples one day (Atkinson-HAH).

    I know I am beginning to beat a dead horse and I apologize for my last few posts, I’m preaching to the choir and appreciate the support of teachers on this blog. I also want to recognize that some positive changes have happened.

    This is CRITICAL to the future of our students, however. Teacher retention has not been addressed. The triage that took place when the new administration came in is akin to fixing the broken ankle while ignoring the head wound. To be fair, a lot of the energy spent was to get us off of probation. But what good will that do if we get in good standing and find we have lost our “brain trust” of qualified, experienced teachers?

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