Wake schools' January legal bill is $6,000

Staff WriterMarch 9, 2010 

  • Wake County school board members will hold a special meeting at 7:30 p.m. today at the school administration building at 3600 Wake Forest Road. It will be the third closed meeting that the nine-member board has held since Superintendent Del Burns announced last month that he intended to resign as superintendent effective June 30.

    Will they have an announcement after tonight's session?

    "I hope so," Chairman Ron Margiotta said. "Some things we have to get behind us."

    Some members urged that Burns step down early after he resigned as a matter of conscience and then publicly criticized the actions of the new board majority.

******

CORRECTION

A story in Tuesday’s paper gave an incorrect figure for the cap on the amounts that attorney Thomas Farr can spend as special interim legal counsel for the Wake County School Board. He is authorized to spend as much as $50,000 on an audit and report on the Wake County school system’s legal arrangements, and another $25,000 for any other legal services he is asked to provide.

****** Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr's far-reaching work for the Wake County school board has included e-mail requests to officials for facts that are on their Web site and a meeting with current board lawyer Ann Majestic, for which taxpayers got billed from both sides for a total of $425 an hour.

Charging $250 an hour - less than his usual rate - Farr has submitted a first bill, for January, of nearly $6,000 for gathering information from education and community leaders about ongoing change in Wake County schools. The invoice covers 21 hours of his time and two more by a consulting attorney at Ogletree & Deakins, a national firm with a Raleigh office.

Farr, who has long-standing ties to North Carolina's Republican leadership, was chosen in December; his selection was one of the first acts of an incoming, GOP-backed school board majority. Opponents of the board majority view Farr's selection as part of an increasingly political dynamic on the officially nonpartisan board.

The new members of the board won election last year on the basis of its promises of a thorough makeover of Wake's 140,000-student system, including an end to its policy of enforcing school diversity.

Board Chairman Ron Margiotta said Monday that Farr's chief job is to examine the panel's arrangements with several law firms that have charged the system more than a million dollars annually in recent years. Farr's areas of expertise include redistricting and employment law.

"We spend an awful lot of money on legal expenses," Margiotta said. "I think the way his contract read was that he was to look into the legal arrangements, and that might point to any other areas that might be of concern."

Farr said Monday that his agreement with the board also calls for him to make suggestions if he comes across means to make the system run more efficiently.

The board capped fees for the law firms' audit and an accompanying report on Farr's conclusions at $25,000. The agreement also calls for Farr to provide legal advice to Margiotta on unspecified matters that might arise, with a separate $25,000 cap. Farr declined comment on whether he had been involved with discussions about the departure of Superintendent Del Burns, who resigned last month but has faced pressure to leave before his announced last day of June 30.

"We have had a lot of cooperation from Dr. Burns' staff, and we are working on the report," Farr said.

School board members turned aside Farr's suggestion that he meet with them individually, after member Anne McLaurin suggested it would be more economical to meet as a group. Among items listed on Farr's invoice is a five-hour stretch, worth $1,250, to prepare for and conduct a Jan. 21 meeting with Burns.

Majestic, whose hourly fee is $175, said Farr had requested and received information about the billing practices at Tharrington Smith, the firm where she works. Tharrington Smith, whose co-founder Wade Smith is a former state chairman of the Democratic Party, has represented the school system for 30 years.

"He has interviewed us, and it was lengthy, and it was thorough," Majestic said.

Information requests

Farr has talked with a wide range of school system administrators, county officials, nonprofit executives and business leaders. Those questioned said he was thorough and unbiased as he asked questions about many aspects of North Carolina's largest school district. Farr has also sent a string ofe-mail messages to Burns and others requesting information about magnet schools, the diversity policy and other matters.

"Are there schools in Wake County that exceed 40 percent [students] eligible for free and reduced lunch and if so which schools and what percentage in each school is eligible," Farr asked Burns via e-mail.

The percentage of children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch in each school is a crucial statistic for Wake's policy of maintaining school diversity on the basis of families' socioeconomic background.

But the information Farr requested by e-mail can be found on the school system's Web site, including school-by-school numbers for the subsidized lunch percentages and many other statistics.

"A lot of this information is readily available, and any clerical assistant that you'd ask to get it for you could," said Ann Denlinger, president of the Wake Education Partnership, an advocacy group backed by local business interests. "None of these things are secret."

The Partnership is nonpartisan, but is closely allied with groups that insist that the system's current method of assigning students serves students and the community well. Farr interviewed several proponents of the current system, including Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce CEO Harvey Schmitt, Public School Forum of North Carolina Executive Director John Dornan, and Denlinger.

"He asked me what my greatest concerns were, and I told him in as clear terms as I knew how that it was absolutely the commitment of the Board of Education to maintaining socio-economic balance in the schools," Denlinger said.

Farr said he's working on a report that will list the results of his review of the system, but declined to give a preview.

"I'll just wait until I've finished drafting my report before I offer my conclusions," he said.

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

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