FIRST ON 3: Lewis to recommend Muscogee schools keep law firm - WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

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FIRST ON 3: Lewis to recommend Muscogee schools keep law firm

Posted: Updated: Feb 13, 2014 08:22 AM
COLUMBUS, Ga. - FIRST ON WRBL NEWS 3: Muscogee schools superintendent David Lewis will recommend his district continues a six decade old relationship with the Hatcher-Stubbs law firm, documents obtained exclusively by WRBL News 3 explain.

As WRBL News 3 reported Tuesday, Muscoguee County School District Superintendent Lewis had private research firm Hanover Research prepare a report to assist him with his recommendation process. The 20-page report will be presented by Lewis to the Board of Education Tuesday, the same night Lewis is expected to give his official recommendation on continuing the law firm's agreement. Although Lewis would not speak to WRBL News 3 about what his plans, an e-mail sent by Lewis to school board members - and obtained by WRBL News 3 - states Lewis plans to recommend keeping Hatcher-Stubbs as the district's legal counsel:

"Therefore, given the results of the independent research and evaluation provided by Hanover Research, the historical institutional knowledge Hatcher-Stubbs possesses, the fact that their hourly rate of billing is within or less than the range identified in the evaluation for districts of similar size with no increase since 2005, and the proven track record of success that most recently resulted in the district prevailing in a case dating back to the early 1980’s that represents an approximate cost avoidance of $5 million dollars, I will be recommending that Hatcher-Stubbs serve as the district’s legal counsel at next week’s Board Meeting."

Web Extra: Lewis' complete e-mail (PDF document)

A News 3 investigation revealed the Muscogee County School District spent $700,000 on legal fees in 2012. The school district has exclusively used Hatcher-Stubbs for more than 60 years. Some - including Georgia State Senator Josh McKoon and local political consultant Frank Myers - have called for the district to use an open-bidding process or in-house legal counsel as an alternative to the exclusive agreement. The open-bidding process would allow the district to consider pricing from competing law firms.

"I think it shows a shocking lack of public transparency," said McKoon, who claims the school district overpays for legal services. In the coming weeks, McKoon is expected to present a new bill prohibiting no-bid legal deals for school districts statewide.

Members of the school board who support the law firm said legal counsel is about more than just money. Board chairman Rob Varner said there is a level of comfort with Hatcher-Stubbs.

"Legal services, professional services, they're similar to what many of us experience when we go to a physician. You develop comfort, you know their education, you know their background, their experience -- in this case with Hatcher-Stubbs we know all of that about them," Varner said during an interview with WRBL News 3 in November.

Myers said he is disappointed with Lewis' planned recommendation, but not surprised:

"Now all of a sudden the attention shifts from Mr. Lewis to the school board members because Mr. Lewis doesn't get a vote," Myers said. "He gets a recommendation and we are now beginning an election year [where] you have 5 seats on the board that are coming up this year."

Lewis declined an interview with WRBL News 3 regarding the Hanover Research report but the district's Communication Director Valerie Fuller issued a statement:

"The Hanover Report will be posted as an agenda item in the interest of full transparency to the public, but there will be no interviews or discussion prior to the Board meeting as it would be inappropriate to do so prior to the Board's review."

During a board meeting in October, members voted to approve a three year, $90,000 contract with Hanover Research. The school district explained services from Hanover Research are utilized in lieu of filling a research and evaluation position in the school district.

Hanover Research explained their research for the recent legal counsel research was obtained through phone interviews with three experts. While the names of those interviewed were not released, the company said the three have a strong understanding of district practices in both Georgia and Alabama. Additionally, paper surveys were sent to 200 schools nationwide. For those filings, 26 surveys were reported. Myers said he has concerns about how the company obtained their data.

“It's pretty clear that the report was put together for the purpose of giving the superintendent cover to do pretty much whatever he wanted to do," Myers said. "You could take that report and go either way with it. I don't think it's a thorough report."

Muscogee County schools Board of Education member Cathy Williams told WRBL News 3 she too has concerns about the thoroughness of the report. Williams declined to speak to WRBL News 3 further explaining she first wanted to take her concerns to the superintendent.

Lewis' planned recommendation and the board's expected vote are anticipated during the January 21 meeting, which begins at 6p et.

Additional documents:
WRBL News 3's James Brierton contributed to this report

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David Hurst

David Hurst, a graduate of the Univ. of Georgia, is News 3's nightside reporter.

James Brierton

James joined WRBL News 3 with experience from CNN, NBC News and his own hyper-local news site. He manages the WRBL News 3 Web desk. More>>

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