LAFAYETTE — The Lafayette Parish School Board has paid a law firm acting as its general counsel more than $90,000 for legal services between January and July — much of it for work that used to be performed by the District Attorney’s Office at no cost, records show.
For the months of June and July, expenses for legal services were $18,286 and $19,345, respectively, according to the most recent invoices submitted by the law firm.
Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice took over as interim general counsel in March after the board relieved the District Attorney’s Office as general counsel in November. The District Attorney’s office had previously been the school system’s general counsel, providing day-to-day legal services at no cost.
Prior to its appointment as interim general counsel, the Hammonds firm was serving as special counsel, handling litigation and providing expertise on personnel and other operational issues. As general counsel, the firm handles day-to-day legal issues, in addition to the work it customarily addressed as special counsel.
A review of the firm’s most recently available invoices shows the bulk of its work relates to personnel matters and contracting issues.
Most of the work is performed by attorneys paid $175 an hour, which is the cap set by the state Attorney General’s Office, according to billing records.
Nearly $14,000 included in the June and July invoices was for work the firm did related to the board’s budget process. The board has met for dozens of hours in special meetings on the budget.
Invoices submitted for June and July show several entries related to budget questions or work requested by the board’s Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry, Superintendent Pat Cooper or board President Hunter Beasley.
Work on budget-related issues outside of budget meetings equaled about 11 hours in June, or $1,970, a small part of the total 125.6 hours the law firm’s staff worked in that month.
The board paid for 23.4 hours, or $4,095, for attorney Kenneth Sills or Bob Hammonds to attend special board meetings specific to the budget in June. Entries for special board meeting hours also included time for preparation and, in some cases, meetings with district staff while in Lafayette.
As part of its contract, the firm does not charge for its Baton Rouge-based attorneys’ travel time.
In July, the firm billed for 10.7 hours, or $1,850, for budget-related work outside of budget meetings.
There were 34.9 billable hours related to budget meetings, for an expense of $6,030. The total number of billable hours by the firm for July was 142.3 hours.
The board halted its search for a permanent general counsel as it worked on the budget. Cooper has pushed for the board to permanently end the search and use the DA’s Office as general counsel again to save the system money.
The budget Cooper prepared allocates $92,504 for legal expenses —the amount spent last year on legal services — in lieu of $200,504, which represents an increase of $108,000 to pay for general counsel services the District Attorney’s Office previously provided at no cost.
The Hammonds firm specializes in education law, and attorneys Jon Guice and Bob Hammonds have been able to address many issues that arise during a board meeting related to parliamentary procedure, board policy and state law. Beasley has said he thinks the expense of hiring a permanent general counsel is worth it because of the firm’s expertise.
Cooper’s proposed budget includes this footnote as an explanation for the adjustment to the legal expenses line item: “assumption that the District Attorney’s Office will serve as general counsel.”
What has been an unusual budget planning process could come to an end Thursday as the board holds a public hearing and meeting for final adoption on the school district’s nearly $440 million unified spending plan for 2014-15.
This year’s budget process has found Cooper locked in a bitter battle with a majority of the board. The superintendent refused to advertise the School Board’s conditionally approved budget plan.
After consulting with the legal department at the Legislative Auditor’s Office, Cooper advertised his own budget document, which the board will have the option to amend during the special meeting planned for 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
The public hearing starts at 4 p.m.
Cooper’s decision came after about three months of meetings as board members attempted to offset a nearly $23.5 million shortfall in the school system’s proposed $270 million general fund.
The board moved forward with its budget review after rejecting more than a dozen proposals from Cooper to balance the budget without resorting to certain spending cuts proposed by the board.
The board offered a proposed budget that came within $1.3 million of closing the shortfall and voted to dip into its rainy day account to balance the budget. The board’s version of the budget also cut expenses for instructional materials, so the board voted to dip deeper into the rainy day fund by $2.5 million for instructional expenses.
The current proposed budget prepared by Cooper, to be considered on Thursday, includes restoring about $8 million in spending on programs, personnel and services that a majority of the board had previously voted to cut. It also uses about $6.5 million in capital project contingency funds to offset the shortfall.
Cooper informed the board’s executive committee last week that there is also $6.5 million in surplus funds available due to an increase in sales tax collections in the fiscal year that ended on June 30.
If the board doesn’t adopt the budget Thursday or makes substantial changes to the spending plan, it will meet again on Sept. 15.
That’s the deadline to comply with a state mandate for turning over an approved budget to the Louisiana Department of Education.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.