Wake school board: New lawyer, big fight

Wake's school board hires a prominent GOP attorney to review contracts, sparking cries of partisanship.

Staff WriterDecember 14, 2009 

— The Wake County school board's choice of a prominent Republican lawyer to take a hard look at the school system's legal contracts and fees has ignited a wrangle about whether the move amounts to overt partisanship or just sound government practice.

The selection of Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr, a former nominee for a federal judgeship with strong GOP ties dating to the Jesse Helms organization, is just one matter of dispute between the board's ruling coalition and members who previously held sway. The new five-member majority, which received strong backing from the county Republican Party, favors killing the current policy of mandated socio-economic diversity in each school, as well as mandated year-round schools.

Board member Kevin Hill, ousted as chairman during a tumultuous Dec. 1 meeting, said naming Farr signals an excessive role for partisan politics on the officially nonpartisan school board. In addition, Hill said, the board should not have named Farr to the job without establishing his fee for the work.

"I do believe it doesn't look good for the board," Hill said. "He is closely identified with the Republican Party at the state level. His law firm has a minimum amount of experience with school law."

Board Chairman Ron Margiotta said Friday that he has not started negotiating money with Farr. The measure is up for renewed discussion at Tuesday's board meeting, which will also likely include a showdown between advocacy groups. State members of Americans for Prosperity say they'll rally support for the new board majority, while BiggerPicture4Wake and at least one other group have promised to show up in support of the existing diversity policy.

Margiotta, who replaced Hill as board chairman, said it's simple prudence to use a highly qualified attorney to take a look at the board's relationship with its longtime advisers, the Raleigh firm of Tharrington Smith. One of the firm's founders is high-profile defense attorney Wade Smith, a Democrat. The change could also prepare the panel for threatened legal action based on the promised policy changes, Margiotta said.

Missed opportunity

Efforts to reach Farr, 55, were unsuccessful. He was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2006 to a federal judgeship in North Carolina, but the U.S. Senate never took action on Bush's choice. A former state legal counsel to the Republican Party, Farr was one of two lead attorneys in a successful challenge to the Democrats' state legislative redistricting plan earlier this decade.

Following the 2010 census, the Wake school board's districts will be redrawn in a new configuration that will determine voting patterns for a decade. But Margiotta said the redistricting process was not yet on the board's radar.

At the Dec. 1 meeting, members of the new majority on the nine-member board selected Farr, who works in the Raleigh office of the national law firm Ogletree Deakins, to review the school system's $1.2 million annual legal business. The resolution, one of several put on the table as the new majority moved quickly to put its stamp on the board, said the school district would continue its relationship with Tharrington Smith but would have the option to go to Farr for additional advice and guidance.

Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative-leaning advocacy group, applauded the board's action and charged that Tharrington Smith is too aligned with the Democratic party and with the system's diversity policy.

"It is in the board's best interest to have a legal counsel that they can trust," said Woodhouse, whose group is planning a demonstration in support of the board at Tuesday's meeting. "I hope that they very much inject partisan politics."

Democratic ties

Tharrington Smith, counsel for the county school board for more than two decades, has also represented dozens of other school districts around the state. Founding partner Smith is a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a prominent defense attorney who doesn't practice education law. Smith made statements in favor of the system's diversity policy in advance of fall elections that changed the board's balance against the policy.

"My law firm has Republicans and Democrats," Tharrington Smith attorney Ann Majestic, the school board's legal counsel, said, rejecting claims the firm is partisan. "Our education section has Republicans and Democrats. I understand that people were supported by a particular party. I am hopeful that once the members take office, their commitment is to the excellence of schools in Wake County."

Majestic said Tharrington Smith could represent the system if the NAACP makes good on its promise to take legal action should the Wake board's proposed changes in student assignment policy result in segregated schools. Margiotta mentioned the group's threat as part of the justification for bringing Farr on board.

"We won't have to go out and find someone if we should choose not to use Tharrington Smith in that case," Margiotta said.

Tharrington Smith, whose work is augmented by several other local firms in areas such as construction contracts, charges $175 per hour for work by its partners, and less for work by associates and paralegals, according to contracts filed with the board. Some other attorneys hired by the board have charged as much as $500 an hour in isolated cases, records show.

Majestic said national firms like Ogletree Deakins, which bills itself as a leading labor and employment law firm, typically charge $300 an hour for the work of partners. Farr did not return calls, and neither the N.C. State Bar, which regulates the practice of law in this state, nor the N.C. Bar Association would comment on attorney fees.

'Anything is possible'

John Tedesco, another new board member, said the idea of hiring Farr to review the system's legal arrangements is not a reflection on Tharrington Smith's work.

"We needed to do an audit of all the legal expenditures," Tedesco said after the Dec. 1 meeting. "This is not replacing Tharrington Smith; this is not replacing the board attorney Ann Majestic; this has nothing to do with that."

But Hill, the ousted chairman, found fault with the board's leaving open the possibility that Farr could wind up as board counsel after conducting the review of Tharrington Smith and other firms. Margiotta said that was indeed a possibility. "Anything is possible," he said. "I wouldn't rule anything out."

Staff writer Rob Christensen and news researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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