Using the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office as the Lafayette Parish School Board’s lawyer is likely off the table as a cost-cutting measure as the board looks for ways to cut back on legal expenses, a board leader recently said.
Instead, creating a staff attorney position or finding ways to limit expenses with the current general counsel are now the two main options on the table, said board Vice President Dawn Morris, who is on the three-member committee considering ways to cut costs.
The executive committee met in May to discuss potential options but didn’t make a recommendation.
At the committee’s meeting on June 16, District Attorney Keith Stutes advised committee members that he would have to charge for general counsel services because the prior board dismissed the DA’s Office from those duties last year.
He also told committee members that he had no assistant district attorneys on staff with educational law experience and it would be in the board’s best interest to select its own attorney experienced in that area.
Stutes reiterated his comments during a June 18 letter sent to all board members.
“In my experience, I truly believe that the specific needs of legal representation by the board requires much more than the services that are typically provided by the District Attorney in such regard,” Stutes wrote in the letter.
The DA’s Office served as general counsel at no cost to the board for years until late 2013, when some members of the then-board disagreed with the assigned assistant district attorney’s take on a request to hire an outside attorney to investigate then-Superintendent Pat Cooper. The board ended up terminating the services of the DA’s Office.
A contract with new general counsel — Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice — went into effect in March 2014. The law firm, with offices in Baton Rouge and Monroe, represents a majority of the school systems in the state and is considered an expert in school law.
The firm previously worked as the school system’s special counsel.
But the new representation has come at a cost, although part of the expenses stemmed from the investigation and termination of Cooper.
Prior to the end of the fiscal year on June 30, the board revised its legal expenses budget by about $300,000 to pay its attorneys’ bills. Property and sales tax revenue helped cover the expenses. The current 2015-16 budget includes about $335,000 for legal expenses.
“Right now, we’re looking at creative ways to reduce expenses with our current general counsel attorneys,” Morris said.
Options include designating a single point of contact at the central office for legal issues or limiting the number of board meetings an attorney attends, she said. Morris said the board may opt to have an attorney attend meetings where only action items are on the agenda.
Another option is hiring an in-house attorney to work as a full-time staff member, said Morris, an attorney who in the past has done work for the Vermilion Parish School Board, which has its own in-house lawyer.
Morris said she was unsure of when the executive committee would take up the legal costs issue again but it likely would be after the board received requested information from its current general counsel on financial options such as retainer fees.
“Besides general counsel, we have to look at reducing the cost of special counsel for litigation for bus accidents and worker’s comp,” Morris said. “We spend a lot of money on counsel defense in those cases.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.