Michael I. Levin, Esquire, who is being paid $170 an hour by QCSD, has been a controversial figure in education law for decades. In 1979, he argued to the State Ethics Commission that most school solicitors were exempt from the Ethics Act. This began 20 years of litigation, as the PA Supreme Court, the Ethics Commission, and the state legislature struggled to close various loopholes, particularly whether solicitors would be subject to the Commission's Conflict of Interest rules.
Levin is General Counsel to the PA School Boards Association Insurance Trust, the huge fund, created with your tax dollars, that serves as an insurance pool for school districts. In essence, if you sue a school board, they use your money to defend themselves. Nothing illegal or improper here - unless you aren't quite comfortable with having your tax dollars used to deny special education programs to special needs students.
See, Levin's main business is his own law firm, Levin Legal Group of Willow Grove. They have represented dozens of school districts over the years, often hired specifically to fight families seeking special ed services for their kids with disabilities like autism, and Down Syndrome. Or the 13-year old with physical disabilities who wanted to attend school with his service dog. Or the family who won in court, only to have their school board pay Levin to fight rather than comply. And how do the school boards learn about him? The same way that QCSD did. When they call the PASB seeking advice, they are handed over to the group's General Counsel, Michael I. Levin.
Because work ends up with Levin's own law firm, and taxpayer dollars are involved, critics say that he has a conflict of interest. The PA Supreme Court ruled that both full-time, and part-time, solicitors had to comply with the Ethics Act. But in most of his contracts, like with QCSD, Levin does not call himself a solicitor. He uses terms like "legal representative", "lead negotiator", or "provider of legal services".
You can imagine what Levin was thinking when QCSD director Kathy Mosley strode out of a private board meeting to announce to the press that the session was "legal" because it was necessary to allow the group to meet with the board's "solicitor". When asked to confirm that Levin was actually the "solicitor", she did so. She apparently believed, though incorrectly, that she had "justified" the private session. Ironically, she was arguably subjecting Levin to the very rules that he seems to be trying to avoid.
However, the Ethics Commission states that "status as a public employee (and, therefore, required compliance with the Ethics Act) is determined upon duties and authority, rather than job titles...". And "The objective test considers what an individual has the authority to do in a given position rather than the variable functions that the individual may actually perform in that position". But since we don't know what Levin was hired to do, or what authority he has, we can't judge if he is subject to the Ethics Act, which would seem to be a major concern for a school board.
We do know that Levin wasn't legally hired by the board, since they never approved a contract with him as required by the PA Public School Act. My written inquiries to Levin, and Superintendent Dr. Lisa Andrejko, have gone unanswered. Ditto the inquiries from Richland Supervisor Craig Staats, who represents about one-third of QCSD residents.
Even worse, the four "reform" directors can't get answers either. In fact, Levin has violated the "rules" he wrote for school boards about contracting for legal services, which he published as General Counsel for the School Boards Association in their June, 2004, Bulletin under "It's the Law". "Another issue that should be addressed is to identify those individuals in the district who can request services to be performed for the district". He then provided a sample paragraph. But there is no such clause in his contract submitted to QCSD.
Although Levin is paid with your tax dollars, by law he represents only the school district. He is accountable only to the board. But they are accountable to you. Aside from any possible conflicts of interest, how do you feel about enriching a guy who has made a living as a hired gun fighting special education families? When board VP Linda Martin campaigned for re-election last year, she stressed the importance of special ed in our schools. Her website even says "I believe that children with special needs can reach their full potential with the support of teachers, aides, and specialists who are trained to provide meaningful education to those students".
Qtown councilman Dave Zaiser, who has a special needs child, was Martin's campaign manager specifically because she said she would advocate for those families. Now Martin is using Zaiser's tax dollars to pay Levin, who routinely fights the folks she promised to help.
When Mosley was making campaign promises back in April, 2007, she told The Free Press "The board needs to be more transparent to the community so people have more of a knowledge of the issues that will be discussed. The input of the community needs to be valued". Obviously, it has not. So, Kathy, will Levin be fighting our families seeking special ed services? Will he be advising the board on avoiding the Sunshine Act? Or is he helping the board's majority, which has taken so much criticism for skyrocketing taxes, outrageous teacher salaries, and poor student performance, to muzzle their critics?
With all of the attorneys in the world, why this guy? With all of QCSD's problems, why are we inviting more controversy, secrecy, and divisiveness? Criminal defense attorneys rationalize representing alleged murderers and drug dealers because everyone is entitled to a defense. But there is no such moral imperative for fighting special ed families. Levin certainly has the right to choose his clients, but our community also has the right to know about the man our board majority chose, and why.