After series of legal battles, Lafayette School Board legal bills mounting _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Lafayette Parish Schools Interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeune.

The new Lafayette Parish School Board faces a tapped-out legal services budget with more than $220,000 in invoices in the first five months of the fiscal year.

On Wednesday, the board will be asked to approve a budget revision of $200,000 to cover estimated future legal expenses for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30. Staff proposes using property tax revenues to offset the additional funds for legal services.

The board dropped the District Attorney’s Office as its general counsel in November 2013, and in March 2014, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice took on an interim role as general counsel. In the past year, the firm’s legal work increased as the board faced numerous legal challenges as well as a contentious budget process with then-Superintendent Pat Cooper that led to lawsuits.

Between July 1 — the start of the fiscal year — and Nov. 30, the School Board incurred $120,300 in legal expenses from its general counsel. The firm’s December invoice hasn’t been received yet. Coupled with other legal bills — such as those totaling about $103,000 associated with Cooper’s lawsuit and investigation — the board’s legal services budget for 2014-15 of $183,000 is easily spent. Not all of the recent invoices have been paid, such as the $53,319 the board owes its general counsel for October and November. So for now, it hasn’t exceeded its budget.

The legal services issue is one the board will need to explore soon, interim Superintendent Burnell LeJeune told board members during a Saturday workshop.

“It was an unusual year because of some of the situations we had with legal issues, but it’s something we’ll try to bring to you,” LeJeune said.

The board created a search committee to fill the job of general counsel permanently; however, those plans were sidelined by an arduous budget planning process and the investigation of Cooper that led to his November ouster.

A discussion on the board’s plans on the general counsel issue is on a to-do list but not at the top of it, LeJeune said before the workshop. The nine-member board, with seven new members, was sworn in Jan. 7.

“We’re still using Hammonds and Sills, and there will be no recommendation in the next couple of weeks, for sure,” LeJeune said. “It is something I plan on addressing with (board President Tommy) Angelle and (board Vice President Dawn) Morris first. … I know it’s something we’ll have to address, without question.”

Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice acts as general counsel for numerous school boards across the state and is the go-to firm for training on education law for educators and school board members. On Saturday, the firm’s Bob Hammonds provided board members a brief overview on their roles and responsibilities.

Hammonds or another attorney from the firm attend the board’s bimonthly meetings and provide legal advice and guidance at board members’ request during the meetings. Those meetings were more frequent last year during the budget planning process, and more attorneys were pulled into the board’s service as it challenged lawsuits filed by Cooper; by education advocate and Cajundome Director Greg Davis; by a special assistant to Cooper, Thad Welch; and by The Daily Advertiser.

The cost of other legal challenges handled by Hammonds and Sills based on legal invoices received for services through Nov. 30 includes:

About $16,000 for work related to The Daily Advertiser’s challenge of the board’s refusal to release copies of attorneys’ investigative reports of Cooper. A state district judge ruled the reports are public records. The judge also ruled that the School Board owes The Advertiser court costs and attorney fees.

About $3,500 for work related to Davis’ federal lawsuit asking the court to intervene in the board’s budget process and to disqualify two board members from voting in Cooper’s employment hearing.

The board hired another law firm — Phelps Dunbar — to handle its investigation of Cooper and represent the board during Cooper’s employment hearing, at a cost of nearly $90,000 for services between May and October . The board also owes Phelps Dunbar additional money for the work of two of its attorneys in November during Cooper’s two-day employment hearing. Cooper’s challenge in state district court also led to a separate legal bill for the board of $13,000 to an attorney who represented three board members Cooper accused of bias.

Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.