PATERSON, NJ – Will Paterson Public Schools save money on legal fees by hiring a new deputy counsel at a salary as high as $150,000?
That question has triggered a sharp disagreement between Board of Education President Christopher Irving and state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans.
“There’s nothing here that indicates to me that indicates we’re definitely going to save money at the end of the day,’’ Irving said at Wednesday night’s board workshop meeting. Irving asserted it would be “irresponsible” to hire a deputy counsel without more proof of savings that would come from the proposed new position.
But Evans responded that it would be “equally irresponsible” not to have enough lawyers on staff to handle the district’s legal workload. “I feel we should have four or five attorneys,’’ Evans said. “We really should. We’re a $560 million corporation. People sue us all the time.’’
“If you want to see us pay more money, the first thing we need to do is not react,’’ Evans added.
During the 2011-12 academic year, Paterson Public Schools paid more than $800,000 to outside law firms, according to a memo that Evans provided to board members on Wednesday. In that year, the district also had two staff members in its legal department, two people in its risk management division and two people in its labor relations division – an attorney and a secretary in each instance. The salaries for those six positions amounted to about $500,000, according to payroll records
This year, the district filled its top legal job, the general counsel position that had been vacant since 2010, by hiring Lisa Pollak at a salary of $170,000. The district also added a paralegal at a $51,000 salary. The pay range for the deputy counsel would be $120,000 to $150,000, according to district spokeswoman Terry Corallo.
But school board members were caught off-guard last month when they heard Evans and Pollak wanted to appoint a deputy counsel and they demanded an explanation. After discussing the issue at the past two board meetings, Evans and board members have not yet reached agreement on the issue. In addition to Irving, other board members who have questioned the hiring include Errol Kerr, Alex Mendez and Jonathan Hodges.
In reality, Evans doesn’t need the board’s approval to go ahead and hire a deputy counsel. Under state control of the city’s school district, the superintendent has authority over all personnel decisions and the school board only serves in an advisory role.
On Wednesday, asked Pollak to clarify which types of legal work were handled by staff lawyers and which by outside counsel. In almost all instances, the work would be done by outside firms or a combination of outside firms and staff lawyers, according to the responses provided by Pollak.
Evans has said hiring a deputy counsel would save on legal fees. He also warned the board that he expected an increase in the district’s legal workload because of cases involving special education and charges filed to revoke staff members’ tenure.
“More and more, we’re holding our staff accountable for performance to our standards and our expectations,’’ Evans said.
One factor that has complicated officials’ evaluation of the district’s legal staff workload has been the prolonged absence of assistant counsel Carol Smeltzer, who has been on medical leave since last April.
“Just because the person isn’t here, that doesn’t mean we go out and hire somebody else,’’ said Irving.