School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin is not fired yet. But a clock is ticking down to Dec. 31, by which time either Superintendent LaShakia Moore and Gavin will have worked out a “mutual agreement” to employ Gavin as a staff attorney, or her contract will be severed, and the board will have to pay out its remaining cost, which could exceed $150,000.
As to who would handle the district’s or the board’s considerable legal needs starting in a month, the board appears to have only vague and conflicting ideas, setting up the possibility that it would be left with only threadbare representation by lawyers who would have little to no familiarity with the district’s case load.
The school board’s 50-minute discussion on the matter at a Tuesday evening meeting accented a chasm between two veteran board members focused on pragmatism and bottom lines on one side, and, on the other, the board’s three newest members’ willingness to improvise as they go, with little heed for consequences. The district administration is left to pick up the pieces.
“In the in the year that I have served I have not found the need for a full time attorney,” The School Board’s Sally Hunt said. “It is an every once in a while need to seek guidance.” The bulk of the district’s needs are on the administrative side of the district, she said. “I at least am one vote in favor of the minimum necessary legal support.” She suggested that Will Furry, the new chairman of the board, should on his own return to the December meeting with “interim” choices of lawyers, which took Board member Colleen Conklin aback.
“We can can’t just say, Will, go find a couple of interns that might be interested in filling the gap,” she said, “We have to identify what cost we’re willing to, give them a budget idea.”
But that’s just what the board decided. There wasn’t much clarity in the board’s approach, but deciphering the board’s intentions can be summed up this way: Furry, with no accounting for method or transparency, will hunt for a few law firms that could do the job on an hourly, on-call basis, at $300 an hour or less. He will bring those possibilities to the board’s Dec. 5 workshop. The board’s chosen firm could be hired by vote at the board’s late-December meeting.
“It is a waste of money. It is a plain and simple, a complete and total waste of money,” Conklin said, pulling herself out of any such consensus.
Meanwhile, a request for letters of interests from law firms interested in a permanent arrangement with the board will be issued on Nov. 30. Interested parties have until Dec. 18 to ask questions, with a Jan. 4 deadline for applications. The board will rank them and potentially invite the firms to present, assuming the board wants to hire a firm on more than an hourly basis. That’s no longer a certainty, given Hunt’s repeated insistance that only minimal representation is needed. The board approved issuing that request for letters of interest on a 4-1 vote, with Colleen Conklin opposed.
Meanwhile, talks between Moore and Gavin continue on whether Gavin can stay on as a staff attorney, answering to Moore, as opposed to a board attorney. Board member Cheryl Massaro had sat in on those negotiations, representing the board. Now that she’s no longer chairing the board, it’s not clear whether Furry will replace her, nor did the board make it clear: Furry at first said he would sit in. But Massaro objected, saying his “adamant” opposition to Gavin having any role in the district rules him out, as that would be a conflict of interest. Hunt did not think it a conflict of interest.
“We have not yet come to a mutual agreement. We do have another meeting scheduled,” Moore said. The goal is to get it done by the end of December. But a job description has to be written.”
The Dec. 31 deadline is extrapolated from an Oct. 26 vote on a motion by Conklin that read: “That Ms. Moore will sit down with Ms. Gavin, Chair Massaro and a representative from Schutz firm to discuss the possibility of moving Ms. Gavin into a district attorney role. If there is no agreement, then we would move forward with looking at 60 days.” She added: “If we can’t get to an agreement, what I’m hearing Christy say, is that then in 60 days, there would be consideration of ending the contract.”
The motion was not clear about whether the 60-day clock would start after the negotiations failed, or at the time the motion passed. Based on yesterday’s discussion, the board sees that clock ticking, with a deadline of Dec. 31.
Gavin, Moore and Massaro had met only twice, with another meeting scheduled either this week or next. Moore is wrestling with the financial impact of any changes: if Gavin were to become staff attorney, she would retain her $135,000-a-year salary, plus benefits, so any additional legal representation for the board would add costs.
With that in mind, Massaro said the board could hire an attorney who would be “on call” for the board for 10 hours a month, at $200 an hour, or $2,000 a month. “Basically they would be at your disposal for whatever needs the school board members would want on an hourly rate,” Massaro said. “Perhaps we don’t need a separate district attorney at this time, and we don’t need a separate school board attorney. We can somehow kind of blend it a little bit where they both do the jobs that we need to be done, and not cost us a tremendous amount of money.”
Massaro said she is trying to avoid litigation or costs that could reach “close to $145, $150,000 we’re going to have to come up with immediately” if Gavin were fired.
“Who is going to be watching out for all of the legal issues, contracts, everything, come January 1?” Conklin said. The board has no idea.
“We do have relationships with outside counsel for the district, so Ms. Moore in this scenario, once again, could also utilize those relationships in the interim as well,” Furry said. But no “outside counsel” would be familiar with the case load Gavin is handling, let alone such matters as Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and the minutiae of day-to-day matters that occupy the attorney.
“If we are unable to come to a mutual agreement by December 31, there is language that would allow for me to engage with an attorney for the district for any emergency cases that we have,” Moore said. But if the contracted service exceeds $50,000, it would still need board approval. Moore did not say whether she would engage Gavin on that basis.
Meanwhile, Hunt, who claims she has cause to fire Gavin, has still not provided those causes, as would be required by a mote to end the contract that way.
“I need to know where the just causes is, Sally,” Massaro asked her. “We had asked you before to present your just cause in writing. I haven’t seen anything. I don’t know if anyone else has.”
Hunt claimed she was “advised that at this time I should not put anything in writing.” Hunt did not say by whom: she frequently refers to a stable of secret attorneys and advisers, mysterious people who give her “feedback.” Then she shut down the discussion: “The motion has passed and so this that is really at this point, old business. So to me this is not an ongoing conversation.”
“So what I’m hearing then is you’re asking the board members to vote on termination based on just cause without seeing anything–on hearsay,” Massaro said.
“Let me let me just take control this for a moment,” Furry said, himself shutting down that discussion and redirecting the focus on the negotiations over a mutual agreement between Gavin and Moore.
Furry at the start of the meeting was elected chair in a 3-2 vote, with himself, Hunt and Chong in the majority, and Conklin and Massaro opposed. Chong was elected vice-chair. Massaro had nominated Conklin for the chair. That nomination fell by the same 3-2 split that elected Furry. Conklin has been on the board 23 years, chairing the board in 2007, 2008, 2015 and 2016. She is also currently the state legislative chair for Florida School Board Association. Furry has been on the board one year.