Montgomery school board's legal counsel decision blocked

Montgomery school board's legal counsel decision blocked
(Source: WSFA 12 News)

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Interim State Superintendent of Education Dr. Ed Richardson is rejecting the Montgomery County Board of Education's decision to hire a Montgomery-based law firm to serve as its in-house legal counsel.

The board voted 4-3 to hire Montgomery City Councilman Frank Bell's law firm after board member Arica Watkins-Smith proposed the firm. Upon Watkins-Smith's proposal, fellow board member Melissa Snowden stated the decision would be a conflict of interest because Bell's firm is representing a plaintiff that is currently suing the board.

Multiple board members refuted Snowden's claim, despite her and board member Lesa Keith both stating they'd recently received letters from the law firm.

The board voted on the decision at its Feb. 13 meeting. Three days later, Dr. Richardson sent a memorandum to the board, Interim MPS Supt. Dr. Ann Moore and Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Reginald Eggleston.

Richardson said he is blocking the board's decision, stating the following issues "raise a number of questions and potential problems."

  1. The board failed to advertise the position, which Richardson says is required by law. In fact, at the time of the vote, Snowden said she was unaware the board would be suggesting firms or voting on the matter that day.
  2. Upon voting, the board never laid out the specific terms of employment. Richardson also mentioned that he understood Bell would serve as the general counsel while simultaneously maintaining his private law practice.
  3. Bell served as an attorney for at least one plaintiff against the board and is still working as counsel of record for the plaintiff in a current suit against the board. The current pending case is Wooden v. Montgomery County Board of Education.

Pamela Wooden, the plaintiff, was the Chief School Financial Officer for MPS before she was fired in 2016. The board voted 4-2 to terminate her after an issue caused MPS employees to not receive their paychecks on time.

Richardson's memorandum states that before he approves the hire of Bell or any other firm to serve as the board's counsel, the following need to be presented.

  1. He requested a complete explanation of proposed terms for the position, and they must address the concerns he previously stated if the board wants to hire Bell’s firm, which Richardson called a “serious conflict-of-interest”.
  2. The memorandum reads that whoever is hired for the position will directly report to the State Superintendent, not the board, while MPS under intervention. The noted states “that understanding must be unequivocally affirmed” in order for Richardson to approve anyone for the position.
  3. With regards to Bell specifically, the memo states the board needs to post the job opening, provide terms of the appointment and confirm that Bell is eligible for the position despite seeming conflicts-of-interest to the board in order for the? Richardson to consider approving the appointment.

The board's ability to hire legal counsel was granted in January when the system settled a lawsuit with the Alabama Education Association. The system was also granted the ability to hire an interim superintendent, which it has since done.

You can read Richardson's full memo here.

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