Last January, Monroe County school board member Priscilla Doster recused herself from approving BOE attorneys for 2019, saying she’s related to one of them, Ben Vaughn, and needed to abstain.
But Doster, who joined the school board in 2017, said she has learned during her training that she doesn‘t have to recuse herself and can vote for a distant cousin. Thus she became the critical fourth vote needed to approve the attorneys recommended by superintendent Dr. Mike Hickman. Doster joined the majority to give it a 4-2 vote, with one recusal, to renew its agreements with Vaughn and the firm of Harben, Hartley and Hawkins.
Doster told the Reporter that she learned at a workshop for school board members that she is not related closely enough to Vaughn to require her to abstain. Doster said she and Vaughn’s father are first cousins.
It was a rare split vote for the board. Each year the school board must choose legal counsel for the year, and Hickman recommended that the board renew the firm of Harben, Hartley and Hawkins to handle educational issues and Vaughn for local issues, such as real estate transactions.
Hickman said that Harben, Hartley and Hawkins, which specializes in school law, represents two-thirds of the school districts in the state, and that attorney Cory Kirby, who has worked with Monroe County Schools for the firm, has done a good job. Hickman said Vaughn is from Monroe County and knowledgeable of local issues.
Board member Greg Head said he feels the board should do its due diligence and ask for bids before making the appointment. Board chair Nolen Howard said the board had asked for bids from attorneys several years ago, and it was hard to get comparable bids.
“I think it is wise to have an expert on educational law and local law,” said Doster, a retired educator. “I’m not always in favor of taking the low bid. We need quality service.”
Board member Stuart Pippin noted that Harben, Hartley & Hawkins is in Gainesville and their attorney has five billable hours just for travel every time he comes to Monroe County. Pippin asked for information on how much Monroe County Schools paid its attorneys in 2019. He was told the information was not available but could be provided before the next board meeting.
Howard said Harben, Hartley & Hawkins represented Monroe County in a case that went to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1999, and he feels the outcome would have been different without their representation. Hickman said that at a certain level the firm would be representing Monroe County Schools anyway because of its affiliation with the Georgia School Board Association, especially in liability and personnel issues.
“I have confidence in them; they are always on top of new policies. I don’t think the logistical distance should speak to their quality. They have done things for the school district that need to be done,” said Hickman. “I haven’t worked with any others.”
School board member Eva Bilderback asked if the board could vote separately on Vaughn and the Harben, Hartley & Hawkins firm. She was told the motion before the board was to reappoint both and there would need to be action on that motion and other motions made to vote on them separately. Howard called for the vote. Pippin abstained because he said he didn’t have the information he needed to cast a vote; Head and Bilderback voted against the reappointments; Howard, J.P. Evans, Judy Pettigrew and Doster voted in favor of the reappointments. In January 2019 Doster abstained from voting to appoint Vaughn because he is related to her.
Asked if the school system could provide the Reporter with the amount it spent on legal fees during 2019, Hickman said Assistant Superintendent Jackson Daniel is in the process of putting together those numbers as requested by Pippin, but they are not yet available. Hickman said he expects to provide the board with information on legal fees back to 2010 at its workshop on Jan. 29.
Hickman said he wants the board to be able to see legal expenses for several years since it varies greatly. He said that all the invoices from school board attorneys that he has reviewed show charges by the hour; he does not think the board pays the law firms a retainer. He also explained that for the Harben, Hartley & Hawkins firm, rates depend on which attorneys the school board uses. Monroe County has used different attorneys at the firm with different specialties.
Hickman said that issues involving special needs students have probably caused the greatest need for legal advice for Monroe County Schools. He said laws and requirements for serving special needs students are complicated and have changed frequently.