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]

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These are a reader’s quick and well informed comments on our recent article on how on September 11, 2017 the School Board Audit Committee recommended that the School Board put a policy in place to put out an RFP for general counsel legal services.

https://verocommunique.com/2019/01/05/the-school-board-audit-committee-recommended-they-put-out-an-rfp-for-general-council-legal-services-school-district-of-indian-river-county-fl/

The reader is anonymous.  We adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics where anonymity is allowable for “sources who may face retribution… or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”

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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

6 thoughts on “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]

  1. It is corruption like this that makes my blood boil. If you follow the latest news of what has been going on in the school district, you realize there’s been shady stuff going on for quite a while with the Superintendent and several of his top Directors involved in it, as well as D’Agresta (legal counsel). To believe otherwise, is pure stupidity or turning a blind eye. Rendell, D’Agresta and the lot of them need to be taken out with the trash!’

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  2. Actions of School Board Attorney D’Agresta & Mysterious “Dr.” Singer (2012-13) = “Sleazy” and “Illegal”?

    Perhaps it would be of benefit for our school board to review what occurred in our school district 2012-13 under the advisement of school board attorney Suzanne D’Agresta. Based on what was reported (below), under Ms. D’Agresta’s advisement, we didn’t have an ethical school board in 2012-13. Do we have an ethical board now under the same general counsel? Should this be a concern for our community? What about the advisement our school board is receiving on the following recent key issues that have impacted the general fund, causing so much uncertainty?
    • Carter Morrison Investigation
    • $8 million TAN
    • $600,000 State Audit – transportation
    • $1.5 million State Audit – career tech
    • $7 million Insurance Deficit
    • Six-year delay in the Focus ERP software implementation (accounting system)
    • Estimated additional $1.2 million penalty – transportation

    The legal advice given to our school board by Ms. D’Agresta in 2012-13 on the “Dr” Singer hire with his monthly salary of $9,516 to be paid by the Indian River County taxpayers quickly turned out to be a huge hiring debacle for our school district. Ms. D’Agresta, Superintendent Adams and the Board were blasted by long-time Florida State Senator Mike Fasano for unethical behavior.

    Why? According to Rep. Fasano, our school board conspired with the help of D’Agresta to circumvent the law.

    Fasano, who sponsored the legislation as a state senator said, “It’s very disappointing that a government entity [SDIRC] would go to this extreme to allow someone to double dip. The law was created so we wouldn’t have such unethical behavior. I blame the Indian River School Board members who voted for this arrangement and the school superintendent for allowing this to happen. No matter how you look at it, you can’t get around the fact that this person [Singer] is circumventing the law with the help of a law firm [D’Agresta], a school board and a superintendent. Shame on them.”

    Fasano’s comments came upon “learning that the school board, at the behest of Adams, had voted to hire a “Dr. Singer” as head of human resources in Indian River County and launder his compensation for seven months through the law firm of the school board’s counsel, Suzanne D’Agresta.”

    Did D’Agresta’s failure to provide the superintendent and school board written advisement of the need to seek outside counsel violate Rule 4-1.8 of the rules of professional conduct set forth by the Florida Supreme Court? Did this failure set up a conflict of interest that was illegal? If D’Agresta did not disclose this potential conflict to our school board, is it a breach of ethics? If it was disclosed, then the board would be party to the ethical breach.

    Professor Robert Atkinson (FSU) is “one of the country’s leading scholars on legal professionalism, a noted scholar on the law of nonprofit organizations and on the relationship between business ethics and legal ethics.” According to Professor Atkinson “The original arrangement to circumvent the state pension law was sleazy but not illegal, but not telling the client in writing of the desirability of consulting another attorney about the transaction was illegal. If the school board attorney didn’t comply with Rule 4-1.8, she [D’Agresta] is subject (if reported) to an investigation by the Florida bar and punishment by the bar. My guess is, if someone reports her, the bar will issue a formal reprimand.”

    That type of reprimand would be a “10-year disciplinary mark on D’Agresta’s record.” “It is something attorneys dread,” said Atkinson.

    Three school board members (2013) expressed concern over the legal advice they received on the issue from D’Agresta. Mr. Pegler’s inclination to seek outside opinions also suggested our school board’s waning of trust in D’Agresta. Why didn’t the Board report Ms. D’Agresta to the Florida bar for potential malpractice and ethics violations?

    Public trust in our school district officials is essential for success. Where does the trust and confidence stand with Indian River County residents? What are the expectations regarding our school district’s general counsel legal services?

    ________________________________________________________________________

    Sources:

    Robert E Atkinson, Jr.
    Professor, Florida State University College of Law
    https://www.law.fsu.edu/faculty-staff/robert-atkinson

    Rule 4-1.8 Conflict of Interest: Prohibited and Other Transactions
    https://www.law.cornell.edu/ethics/fl/code/FL_CODE.HTM

    11/22/12
    Attorney abets School District evasion of state double-dipping law
    By: Meg Laughlin
    http://vb32963online.com/STORIES%202012/NOVEMBER%202012/VB32963_School_District_Attorney_Double_Dipping_Issue47_112212.html

    11/22/18
    Superintendent, board blasted for unethical behavior
    By: Meg Laughlin
    http://vb32963online.com/STORIES%202012/NOVEMBER%202012/VB32963_Superintendent_Board_Blasted_Unethical_Behavior_Issue47_112212.html

    11/29/12
    Will School Board reverse plan to end-run law, laundering salary through firm of attorney?
    By: Admin
    http://veronews.com/2012/11/29/will-school-board-reverse-plan-to-end-run-law-laundering-salary-through-firm-of-attorney/

    11/29/12
    Board votes to accept law firm offer to lander pay for new personnel chief
    By: Admin
    http://veronews.com/2012/11/29/board-votes-to-accept-law-firm-offer-to-launder-pay-for-new-personnel-chief/

    12/6/12
    Singer starts work amid new conflict of interest questions
    By: Meg Laughlin
    http://vb32963online.com/STORIES%202012/DECEMBER%202012/VB32963_Stuart_Singer_Starts_Work_Issue49_120612.html

    12/13/12
    School superintendent backs down; fires controversial hire
    By: Meg Laughlin
    http://vb32963online.com/STORIES%202012/DECEMBER%202012/VB32963_School_Board_Fran_Adams_Fires_Singer_Issue50_121312.html

    12/20/12
    School Board attorney’s advice on hiring may have broken Florida law
    By: Meg Laughlin
    http://vb32963online.com/STORIES%202012/DECEMBER%202012/VB32963_DAgresta_Advice_May_Have_Broken_Law_Issue51_122012.html

    1/10/13
    D’Agresta bills to School Board questioned
    By: Meg Laughlin
    http://vb32963online.com/STORIES%202013/JANUARY%202013/VB32963_DAgresta_School_Board_Billing_Questioned_Issue2_011013.html

    “Suzanne D’Agresta’s Orlando law firm billed the Indian River School Board over $28,000 in October. In November, her bill topped $24,000. Those bills include a $22,000 monthly retainer plus travel expenses and extra fees not covered by the retainer. A look at a breakdown of the bill raises questions:

    Should D’Agresta charge the school system for time spent researching and discussing what turned out to be a huge hiring debacle (“Dr” Singer) she promoted? Why is her firm also billing the school system for time spent trying to explain and justify that mistake? Why is D’Agresta charging to review the work and bills of two specialty lawyers hired by the school system – one to oversee management union negotiations, the other to represent the school system on an employment issue? The final question is whether the firm’s travel expenses are justified.

    D’Agresta and her colleagues charge the school system $118 every time they drive from Orlando. That costs Indian River County taxpayers over $1,000 a month in addition to the $22,000 retainer.

    On Nov. 1, D’Agresta charged the school system her professional rate to drive from Vero Beach to Jacksonville for a conference for school board attorneys – a trip which took 3.6 hours. That amount was included in her retainer. But beyond that, she charged the school system for her hotel in Jacksonville – $331 for one night – and her mileage expenses to drive to Jacksonville and then back to Orlando after attending the National Association of School Board Attorneys’ Conference.

    Months ago at a school board meeting, several teachers questioned why Indian River County taxpayers should pay for D’Agresta’s development and networking as a highly-paid attorney. In response, the school board reduced the number of conferences it would finance, but agreed to pay for the one in Jacksonville.

    The question remains: On top of the $22,000 monthly retainer plus other expenses and fees, should Indian River County taxpayers pay for D’Agresta to attend any conferences, including the one in Jacksonville?

    Should D’Agresta bill taxpayers for hours spent attempting to justify her own liability?

    Why is D’Agresta overseeing the work and billing of the school system’s specialty attorneys, and making that review part of her own billing?”

    1/5/13
    Opinion Letter: Indian River School Board’s arrangement with Orlando attorney raises ethics issues
    By: John Pitta, Vero Beach
    http://archive.tcpalm.com/opinion/letter-indian-river-school-boards-arrangement-with-orlando-attorney-raises-ethics-issues-ep-38134367-342789362.html/

    “The recent hire of Orlando “part-time” $280,000-plus legal consultant, attorney Suzanne D’Agresta by the Indian River County School Board raises serious doubt.

    If D’Agresta did not disclose this potential conflict to the board, then it’s a breach of ethics. If it was disclosed, then the board would be party to the ethical breach.

    Either way, D’Agresta must be terminated along with her law firm for this gross ethical breach.

    For what lesson does this give to the students for which the board exist to further and provide them with a competent education and respect for the law?

    These backroom deals have got to stop if we are going to have ethical fiscal responsibility.

    Indian River County residents speak up and demand accountability.”

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  3. Issuing RFPs for professional services every two years is considered best practice in school finance. Such RFPs should be issued for external, annual audit service (not to be confused with audit committee), and legal services. RFPs for school district external, annual audit services every two years is a legal requirement in NYS. This is important to ensure that the cost of the service is controlled in the best interest of the taxpayers. Moreover, having the same professional service providers year after year doesn’t permit a fresh pair of eyes to review district business, which again, is just good practice. I’m sure the current professional service providers are doing a good job; however, rotating these services should be considered by the school board.

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  4. I was a bit perplexed to watch board member Justice give a “dressing down” to newly elected board member Dr. Mara Schiff when the subject matter of RFP’s for board counsel came up. First, Justice either lied or purposely misinformed other board members by stating that D’Agresta’s $289k/year is less per year than most districts pay for legal counsel. She knows very well that amount only covers BOARD meetings and a few other odds and ends, such as covering for Rendell. Probably why she doesn’t want to get rid of her. However, if Rendell needs a “fixer”, he hire someone at his own expense, not on the backs of Indian River County taxpayers. It is evident that those two want things to stay the same.
    Voters elected NEW BOARD MEMBERS TO HANDLE THIS OUT OF CONTROL SUPT & his out of control Administration. This includes his board attorney D’Agresta. We realize that there is lots to do, however, this is what you signed up for. It’s time for either a forced resignation out of Rendell or (if he refuses), a vote of no confidence by the board. You have the votes. It’s going to be far less expensive to get rid of him now than to mop up the expensive mess later. Best to do so now before he hires an incompetent CFO and another legal counsel willing to do his bidding.

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  5. Also if Morrison were still CFO, maybe Pamela Dampier in Curriculum & Instructional would not have gone over her budget already this year by $300,000; yet going before the board asking for another $159k for electronic books? Where’s her financial control now that the CFO was booted? It’s sure as hell not Rendell since they go way back and she gets whatever she wants out of him! Someone needs to put the brakes on her spending!
    And what about Transportation spending? The school district would never be in this financial mess if Morrison hadn’t been framed for Rendell’s shenanigans! But what is this current board doing about it? I don’t want to hear this started under the last board! It’s ongoing under you! It’s up to you to fix it!

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  6. Pingback: The Data on Legal Fees. [School District of Indian River County, FL.] | Vero Communiqué

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