The School Board Audit Committee Recommended They Put Out an RFP for General Council Legal Services. [School District of Indian River County, FL.]

 

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Did you know that on September 11, 2018 the Audit Committee for the School Board of the School District of Indian River County, FL unanimously recommended to the School Board “to put a policy in place to put out a RFP for general council legal services at least every three years…”

Suzanne D’Agresta, Esq. of the Orlando firm Garganese, Weiss, D’Agresta & Salzman, P.A. has been the School District’s outside general council for the School District since 2009.  She is certified by The Florida Bar as a specialist in City, County and Local Government Law, and has significant experience in transactional and litigation matters involving School Boards.

Section 218.391, Florida Statutes, requires that the governing body of each district school board to establish an audit committee.

The committee advises to the School Board, making observations and recommendations based on its review of the facts, action plans and financial reports. It is to provide advice to the School Board and Administration on improving the financial controls and efficiency.

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” said Robert Auwaerter, Audit Committee Chairman. “It is a very significant cost to the School District – $ 264,000 a year – plus mileage reimbursement plus other expenses.  You can hire a few teachers for that.  We felt it was worth checking on.”

The Audit Committee presented their recommendations to three of the five members of the School Board, Chairman Shawn R. Frost, Vice Chairman Charles G. Searcy, and Board Members Dale Simchick, Laura Zorc, and Tiffany M. Justice.

Three Audit Committee members were present, Mr. Robert Auwaerter, Chairman; Mrs. Gayle Gilmore, Vice Chairwoman, and Mr. Jeff Smith, Committee Member.

Dr. Mark J. Rendell, Superintendent of Schools; and Suzanne D’Agresta, School Board Attorney, were also present.

Each of the five School Board members selected one member for the Audit Committee.

The five selected members, at that time, included the following:

Robert Auwaerter: Mr. Auwaerter is the retired head of the Vanguard Fixed Income Group, where he was responsible for $ 750 billion in client assets.  On December 12, 2018 he received the Fiscal Conservative of the Year Award from the Indian River County Taxpayers Association.

Gayle Phillips Gilmore, CPA.  Ms. Gilmore was previously a VP of Wilmington Trust.

Charles Gisler, EVP/CFO/COO Marine Bank and Trust.

Jeffrey R. Smith, CPA, CGFO, CGMA, Indian River County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller.

Glenn Heran, CPA and utility activist.  On December 12, 2018 he received the Volunteer of the Year Award from the Indian River County Taxpayers Association.

Mr. Auwaeter indicated that from a May 22 audit meeting the committee felt that their mandate was “to look at it from the cost side,” which turned into a focus on the cost of General Council legal services, as well as a discussion on school district employee benefit expenses.

Mr. Auwaerter said the Committee had studied two surveys on Florida school district legal costs; one was July 2015 survey by the Florida District of School Superintendents and the other by Escambia County.

In looking through these surveys Mr. Auwaeter said it gave them a general idea of the costs of these services.

He said “it is a good practice to test the market every once and awhile.”  And that “this has nothing to do with making a judgement of the value received of or perceived of legal services” [by outside attorney Suzanne D’Agresta, Esq.].

Committee Member Jeffrey R. Smith emphasized that “this has nothing to do with the quality [of Ms. D’Agresta’s] service.”

“The [unanimous] conclusion we came to here is that is that there are a wide range of prices and it would be worthwhile to test the market.”

During the discussion, Board Member Dale Simchick wanted to make everyone aware that Ms. D’Agresta has not increased her fees since responding to an RFP in 2009.

Here are the “extensive” District School Board Superintendent’s Workshop Minutes for this meeting |09/11/2018| by Esplen, Nancy.

“Mr. Auwaerter shared a PowerPoint presentation to cover the five meetings they had and the recommendations they had. The committee answered all of the Board Member’s questions. The committee gave thanks to staff for their cooperation and assistance. It was suggested that after a committee meeting, they present their finding to the Board Members, at a Business Meeting. The Board Members thanked the committee for their service. Chairman Frost presented each of them with Certificates of Appreciation and photos were taken.”

No action has been taken on this item at this time.

auwaerter

Robert Auwaerter

 

 

4 thoughts on “The School Board Audit Committee Recommended They Put Out an RFP for General Council Legal Services. [School District of Indian River County, FL.]

  1. Thank you to the Audit Committee for its unanimous recommendation to the School Board “to put a policy in place to put out a RFP for general counsel legal services at least every three years…” This is an item of great importance and I hope our new School Board takes action. It’s long overdue! No RFP’s since 2009 certainly leaves one to question if there is not more to this than it appears.

    Ms. D’Agresta’s 150 billable hours per month as SDIRC’s school board attorney indicates that SDIRC must be her only client because that’s full time. Is SDIRC Ms. D’Agresta’s only client? Are our school district’s legal costs soaring? Out of Florida’s 67 school districts, only 15 school districts (including SDIRC) hire outside the county for general legal counsel. Out of those 15 school districts, 13 are small districts with enrollment between 713 – 11,868 students that hire from the neighboring county. We are the only school district that hires general legal counsel outside of the county with a significantly longer travel radius (213 miles) than any other school district in the state. If SDIRC the only school district that operates in this manner, does that indicate that there are no qualified attorneys in our area that have passion and a vested interest in our community? It would only seem logical to hire a school board attorney that is familiar with and rooted into the Indian River County culture.

    Furthermore, I would like to see the Board address the superintendent’s spending authority/power on legal defenders, investigators, and auditors at a board meeting. It appears to have gotten out of control. Recently, the superintendent hired Allen, Norton & Blue, P.A. on 8/1/18 to complete an investigation on Carter Morrison, hired CPA firm Berger, Tooms, Elam, Gaines & Frank to conduct an audit, and hired Sniffen and Spellman, P.A. out of Tallahassee on 11/29/18 to perform an investigation involving documents pertaining to Julianne Pelletier that were sent to the board recently. Currently, our superintendent’s spending authority/power to purchase such services is $50,000, which allows the superintendent to do what he wills without board oversight. The board can only take action as a body in a public meeting. Also, Ms. D’Agresta’s contract does not give her unilateral authority to hire attorneys on its behalf. A primary duty of the school board requires it to act as a check and balance on the superintendent. The superintendent’s $50,000 spending authority power is not allowing for maximum transparency to occur.

    Current Contract for our School Board Attorney states: “The SCHOOL BOARD does hereby retain ATTORNEY [SUZANNE D’AGRESTA] for a term of three years, beginning the 1st day of April, 2012, and ending on the 31st day of March, 2015, or as may be extended thereafter by mutual consent of the parties. Either party may terminate this Contract without cause on thirty (30) days notice in writing to the other party. If the Contract is not terminated by March 1 of each year, it will be automatically extended for an additional year on an annual basis.”

    The AASA, the School Superintendent’s Association, makes the following key recommendations:
    1) “The term of the contract usually is for year to year employment. While some contracts may involve multiple years it is wise, at least initially, to rely upon an annual employment contract with a reappointment clause.”
    2) “An annual evaluation of the school board attorney also is a good idea but one which is overlooked often.”

    ________________________________________
    SOURCES:
    AASA http://www.aasa.org/content.aspx?id=32954

    Florida School Board Attorneys Association https://fsbaa.com/district-contacts

    SDIRC Legal Fees (July 1, 2013 – March 31, 2018)
    Garganese, Weiss & D’Agresta $1,744,567.11
    Allen Norton & Blue PA $160,043.84
    G. Russell Petersen PA $4,715.00
    Richeson & Coke PA $129,626.76
    Division of Administrative Hearing $10,162.39
    Mark I Laurie, Inc. $3,645.90
    Nabors Giblin & Nickerson $124,411.30
    Sergent, Stanley (Special Magistrate) $6,697.00
    Gould, Cooksey, Fennell PA $164,233.43
    Carman, Beauchamp, & Sang PA $78,649.63
    Legal Aid Society $1,462.57
    Husch Blackwell LLP $417,432.88
    Litigation Services & Technologies $9,787.85
    Law Offices of David Miklas PA $49,191.50
    Chartwell Law Offices LLP $18,432.82
    Rhea P Grossman PA $1,250.00
    Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell $2,695.59
    TOTAL LEGAL FEES $2,927,005.57

    IRC School Board Attorney: Suzanne D’Agresta
    Retainer Files (January 2018 – November 2018)
    Amount Hours # Travel Days
    Jan-18 $22,843.95 125.0 6
    Feb-18 $22,997.19 113.7 7
    Mar-18 $22,928.29 159.9 6
    Apr-18 $23,710.04 178.5 9
    May-18 $24,163.54 167.1 7
    Jun-18 $23,271.80 157.0 6
    Jul-18 $22,840.02 129.9 6
    Aug-18 $23,018.26 172.4 8
    Sep-18 $23,123.14 136.0 9
    Oct-18 $22,897.59 153.1 7
    Nov-18 $23,451.98 145.6 8
    Dec-18 tbd tbd tbd
    TOTAL $255,245.80
    MONTHLY AVERAGE = 148.9 hours
    TOTAL TRAVEL DAYS = 79

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  2. Pingback: Well Informed Comments on the School Board Audit Committee’s Recommendation for an RFP and How the Superintendent’s Legal Bills are “Out of Control”. [School District of Indian River County, FL) | Vero Communiqué

  3. Pingback: Well Informed Comments on the School Board Audit Committee’s Recommendation for an RFP and How the Superintendent’s Legal Bills are “Out of Control”. [School District of Indian River County, FL] | Vero Communiqué

  4. Not sure who watched the “all-nighter” board meeting of 1/15/19 where Dr. Mara Schiff brought up a discussion on the RFP for legal counsel. Did anyone else catch Tiffany Justice attempt to lie her way through that meeting in regards to the costs of the school district legal fees. She tried desperately to cover for who? D’Agresta? Rendell? Herself? All of the above? The public and the newer board members deserve better than half truths or outright BS. The other board members (especially Zorc) need to shut her down when she starts her crap.

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