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School District Rethinks Legal Services As One Law Firm Gets Almost $900,000 in Fees During Past 30 Months

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PATERSON, NJ – After spending a two-year total of about $1.8 million on legal services, city education officials are considering a reorganization of the school district’s law department.

More than a third of that money went to one firm, Schenck, Price, Smith and King, which collected about $670,000 during those years and has another $200,000 set aside for its bills for the current year.

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The reorganization is supposed to reduce payments to outside firms by expanding the district’s in-house staff, officials said. It would include the creation of a new deputy law director’s position with a salary between $120,000 and $150,000, according to district officials.

At present, the district has one general counsel, Lisa Pollak, who makes $170,000, and one assistant counsel, Carol Smeltzer, who makes $120,531. Smeltzer has been out on medical leave since last spring.

Board of Education members have complained that they were caught off-guard by the administration's plans to hire a deputy counsel and they have demanded an explanation of the proposal. On Wednesday, city school officials are scheduled to discuss the legal department during a special meeting at 5 pm at the district offices at 90 Delaware Avenue.

“Paterson is a very large, urban district and our legal counsel provides us overall guidance while assisting us with the review of numerous contracts and lease agreements, Affirmative Action matters, HIB (Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying) processes, and attendance and tenure initiatives,’’ said district spokeswoman Terry Corallo. “By having an additional in-house attorney, we can improve efficiency while reducing the cost of legal services being rendered to the district.”    

Most of Paterson Public Schools’ recent legal expenses have stemmed from fees to outside law firms, according to district finance documents provided to PatersonPress.com under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act.

In the 2010-11 school year, the district earmarked about $569,000 for outside law firms and $653,000 in 2011-12, according to the finance documents. For the current year, the district has set aside $499,000 for fees for outside law firms. But that number could rise. That’s what happened in the last two years, when district officials increased the allocation for law firms as the year went on.

The law firm of Schenck, Price, Smith and King, which has offices in Paramus, Florham Park and New York, has reaped the majority of those fees, with more than $870,000 set aside for the firm during the past 30 months.  The second highest total has been for the the lawyer who handles labor negotiations for the district, Robert Murray. The district has spent about $580,000 encumbered for his work during the past two-and-a-half years.

Meanwhile, the size of the district’s in-house legal staff has grown each of the past two years, according to the finance reports.

In 2010-11, the district’s payroll documents showed two law department employees with a total salary of $161,853. Those numbers did not include the $133,900 salary paid to former law director Mark Tabenkin, who was terminated in April 2010 but continued to receive his full salary until June 30, 2011 as part of a lawsuit settlement.

In 2011-12, the district’s law department expanded to four employees with a total of $325,258 in salaries. In 2012-13, the law department has grown to eight employees with $733,669 in salaries, not including the possible addition of a deputy director. Part of the law department’s increase in the 2012-13 results from the shift of two employees from the district’s labor relations office into the law department.

Pollak previously worked as general counsel for Newark Public Schools. Corallo said that Pollak said that Newark’s total legal expenses and its total legal staff were much larger than Paterson’s.

For instance, Corallo said, Newark had five lawyers, two paralegals, four or five staff members in their risk management area and another three in the labor department when Pollak was there. At present, Paterson has two lawyers, one paralegal, two people in risk management and two people in labor relations, along with two secretaries.

 

 

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