Attorneys have done quite well representing the Jackson Public School District. JJ obtained through a public records request invoices and contracts for school board attorney Dorian Turner and JPS District Counsel Joanne Sheppard. What is interesting is the district has both a lawyer who is an employee and an attorney who represents the school board. Most districts have one or the other but not both.
Ms. Turner sent invoices of $237,836 since January 2010 to JPS. Here are the fees as stated on the invoices*:
2012: $51,090 (Through September).
Lonnie Edwards litigation: $6,267
Superintendent Search: $23,244.
It should also be noted Ms. Turner earned fees of $243,813 for the $114 million 2008 general obligation bond issue and $42,233 for the 2007 $36 million general obligation bond issue. The district retained Ms. Turner in January 2008. The contract states the district will pay her at a rate of $180 per hour and her paralegal at a rate of $75 per hour. Although Ms. Turner is commonly called the "Board Attorney", her contract states she represents the district as well. The district also pays Ms. Shepherd an annual salary of $99,986 as an employee.
Such an arrangement is rare, even for larger school districts in Mississippi. Madison and Rankin County Public School Districts retain outside counsel for any representation. There is no "in-house" counsel. Desoto County is the largest public school district in Mississippi. It was paying the board attorney $125 an hour. However, the district determined it was cheaper to hire an attorney as an employee. The district's press release announcing the hiring stated:
"In an effort to control legal expenses and secure more legal services, the DeSoto County School Board approved a contract to have in-house counsel at the Thursday recessed board meeting.
Prior to this agreement, the school board attorney Keith Treadway had a contract from January 1 though December 31, 2012 at $125 per hour.
Treadway will now be a salaried employee of the district, making $155,000 per year....
‘Large school districts are big targets,” said Kuykendall. “Between 2009 and 2011, rising legal expenses for DCS totaled $1.26 million. School districts must expend a lot of effort and money to defend themselves from lawsuits and make sure all contracts and actions of the school board are legal actions.”...
“Cities and larger school districts throughout the nation have gone to in-house counsel,” Kuykendall said. “It is a cost savings and you have legal advice 24 hours a day. With increased legal service to the district, it is my hope to prevent lawsuits in the future.”
It should also be noted that whenever the district needs representation in dealing with complaints or lawsuits, JPS usually retains attorney Jim Keith at Adams & Reece. Calls to JPS CFO Sharolyn Miller were not returned.
*JJ was unable to obtain copies of the actual bills. The district claimed attorney client privilege. They apparently couldn't follow the lead of other government bodies and redact any sensitive information.
Editorial comment: That was the news, now for the opinion. There is no reason for JPS to have three layers of lawyers: An in-house lawyer, a board attorney, and an attorney for litigation. Mr. Keith is a recognized specialist in education and disabilities law. It is understandable to retain him when there is litigation. However, there is no excuse to have both an employee who is counsel and a board attorney. Ms. Shepherd is a capable attorney. If she needs help, hire another lawyer or paralegal to assist her in her duties. The board should terminate Ms. Turner's contract at the earliest convenience. If the board really wants to save money, it should open up for bidding the bond counsel contract next time there is a bond issue but that is probably expecting too much in this state as bidding is the new four letter word. JPS should follow Desoto's lead.