In the past, the Lafayette Parish School Board used the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel at no cost to the board, but a renewal of that relationship won’t be on the same gratis terms, District Attorney Keith Stutes told the board’s executive committee Tuesday.
“If we were to entertain that discussion again about providing counsel … (it) would result in discussion about compensation,” Stutes said.
Neither Stutes nor the majority of the sitting School Board members were in office in late 2013 when that board decided to end its relationship with the DA’s Office and seek its own counsel. In March 2014, the board entered into a contract with Hammonds, Sills, Atkins & Guice, a law firm that specializes in education law and represents a majority of the school districts in the state.
The firm was already on the board’s payroll as its special counsel. In the past year, legal expenses for the board have increased in part due to its private representation but also due to ongoing litigation associated with the decision to investigate and later terminate then-Superintendent Pat Cooper in November 2014.
In an interview after the meeting, Stutes noted that the former board’s decision to hire its own counsel discharged the DA’s Office from providing legal services at no expense to the board.
As part of the arrangement, the DA selects an assistant district attorney to work with the public body.
“That’s not always the perfect scenario,” Stutes said, because the board doesn’t have a voice in who is assigned to work with them and the assistant district attorney often has a workload in addition to the School Board-related business.
“I don’t think it’s any news to you that the business of the School Board is specialized,” Stutes told the board’s executive committee.
The former board, whose terms ended Dec. 31, cut ties with the DA’s Office in November 2013 after an assistant district attorney, Roger Hamilton Jr., advised the state Attorney General’s Office that an investigation of Cooper wasn’t warranted.
Executive committee member and board vice president Dawn Morris, who is an attorney, asked Stutes if any assistant district attorneys had the experience to provide general counsel to the board.
Stutes said he has one assistant district attorney with civil law experience assigned to the Vermilion Parish Police Jury, but his staff of prosecutors specialize in criminal law.
“Even if you’d come back into the fold, whoever would assist us would have a steep learning curve?” Morris asked Stutes.
“That is true,” Stutes said. “If we were to entertain discussion to re-establish representation, there are a number of attorneys with the experience that you would require. It would be a matter of me approaching lawyers to become an ADA to work with the School Board.”
He said he could provide the board with a list of attorneys who have more than 10 years of experience in education law experience.
Stutes also told the board members he isn’t shirking his responsibilities of providing counsel, if requested, but that hiring its own attorney is “probably a good thing to do.”
He said he wants to cultivate a relationship with the School Board on issues that involve the DA’s Office, such as truancy.
“I will also be available if you have any questions of a general nature as to the law,” Stutes said.
The executive committee didn’t make a recommendation on the legal counsel issue. During the committee’s meeting last month, members discussed exploring other options for representation, such as creating a full-time, on-staff attorney position or using the DA’s Office.
In the current fiscal year that ends on June 30, the board had allocated about $180,000 for its legal expenses but has had to dip into property tax revenues and sales tax revenues to the tune of more than $300,000 in the past few months to cover legal costs associated with board counsel and ongoing litigation related to Cooper’s termination.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.