Is There A Lawyer In The House?

January 16, 2012

Everyone knows the question that you hope you never need to ask: "Is there a doctor in the house?" It portends problems for someone's health. But at least two local school boards are pondering the need for a lawyer in the house. And that portends great benefits for both communities.

Like QCSD, neighboring Pennridge has several new directors. And, like QCSD, they were elected on promises of big changes. One of the first is already on its way. Noting that it is pretty routine for school boards to have legal counsel at their meetings, the directors will be interviewing seven law firms for the position.

Pennridge Board President David Thompson said that having a knowledgeable school law attorney present would help insure that members were given proper advice on the legality of their actions and decisions, and keep them from "incurring personal liability". In fact, the new board would have hired an attorney back in December, but for the fact that they failed to discuss the matter in a public meeting.

Quite an irony that the new directors started off incorrectly because they didn't have an attorney to advise them! Under the state Sunshine Law, actual "legal matters" can be discussed in private executive sessions, but that term refers to existing or potential litigation, and doesn't include hiring an attorney. Had the board sought the opinion of the legal expert they now plan to engage, he/she would have told them so. Hopefully they will now get the process right, and be better advised in the future.

Richland Township and Quakertown Borough have a solicitor present at almost every meeting. Milford does whenever there is a need on the agenda. Even tiny Richlandtown gets regular reports.

Which brings us back to QCSD.....

The issue of an attorney at our meetings is nothing new - but, just as in Pennridge, the board majority is. Newly elected Gary Landes, who unseated former President Kathy Mosley with a campaign that promised, among other things, more board transparency, and an end to illegal meetings, said "It looks like Pennridge is attempting to reform things the way we are hoping to."

It is a little-know fact that there really is a board solicitor in QCSD. We just never hear about him, or his firm, because he is rarely, rarely, rarely on duty. That would be Ellis Katz, Esq, of the New Britain firm Sweet, Stevens, Katz, & Williams. Not that Mr Katz wouldn't be happy to offer his advice. But under the prior old-guard boards, dominated by Superintendent Lisa Andrejko, no one from the firm was consulted.

QCSD's board meets about 20 times a year. Their own on-line minutes show that between July 27, 2005 (the start of the 2005-06 school year), and March 17, 2011, the board had an attorney present exactly three times, twice for a specific purpose. Three times in more than 110 meetings!!!

July 27, 2006 - Jefrey Tucker addressed the board on re-aligning voting districts.

May 24, 2007 - Sharon Montanye answered questions regarding a zoning variance.

Sept 27, 2007 - Ellis Katz himself appeared. No apparent purpose, but he did remind the board at one point that there was a motion on the table to table the motion.

Other than that, no legal counsel. Perhaps the former boards felt that such expertise was unnecessary. Or perhaps, just perhaps, they felt that having no legal counsel gave them deniability when they were caught making up their own rules. "Oops, we didn't know". And they were caught - repeatedly.

All legal opinions came from Andrejko - including the one that "allowed" the board to illegally renew her contract last January in a private exec session - after she and the board were warned in writing by the PA Dept of Education that the vote had to be done in a public meeting.

Andrejko's own self-serving, and unqualified, advice also prompted the board to allow her in 2008 to make district contracts up to $25,000 by herself, in private, when the PA law clearly stated that the limit was $10,000. The state Auditor General sent QCSD a written rebuke, ordering the board to change its policy.

Then there was the board's improper private exec session on January 30, 2006, when they met solely to chastise (then) new director Paul Stepanoff (an early critic of many board actions) for sending an email to Acting Superintendent Landis which (accurately) warned that the objectivity of the math task force had been compromised. There is no exception to the Sunshine Law for criticism of fellow directors. P.S., the math task force was soon disbanded for being biased.

Oct 25, 2007: The board again met in improper executive session, to (falsely) accuse Stepanoff of leaking details of the union negotiations. Again, there is no valid exception to the Sunshine Law for intimidation of a member.

And on Nov 20, 2007, the same board held a private, unadvertised "Conference", where, according to directors, they spent one full hour, 25 percent of their time together, debating how to control what appeared in my columns. The Sunshine Law clearly states: "Deliberation of agency business may not occur at a conference".

And there have been dozens of other Sunshine Law violations, based on improper or inadequate notices and explanations. Who knows what they discussed that should have been made public? A competent, and independent, board attorney, would have prevented those community insults.

The term "independent" is crucial here. When the old boards, or Andrejko, wanted a ruling tailor-made for them, they simply skipped over their solicitor, and went to Mark Levin, counsel to the PA School Board Association , and a hired gun to PSBA members. Levin himself had a running battle with the PA Ethics Commission over his status, because actual board solicitors have to sign an Ethics Pledge, but as an "outside counsel" he maintained that he did not.

Stepanoff had been urging the old board for years to have a solicitor at all meetings where the agenda appeared to present a need for professional advice and guidance. He repeatedly objected to Andrejko acting as the board's attorney, since she had no legal background, and of course, had her own agenda. But the board majority, which basically gave in to Andrejko on everything, ignored him. Now, with the old guard now swept out, the dynamic is changing....

"Legal questions are handled by the superintendent, and the new board is starting to see the folly of that process", Stepanoff reiterated last week. "Since school solicitors work for the board, why put the members at risk by having the superintendent act as counsel, or even as a go-between? Perhaps there could be an argument for not having the solicitor sit at every meeting. However, when any legal questions arise on the agenda, or important agenda items loom, not having a solicitor is, at best, shortsighted, and is a false economy."

In addition to the bi-monthly public meetings, the QCSD board routinely holds executive sessions for "legal matters". Yet not once in the last two years was a solicitor present!!! Stepanoff wants to see an end to this practice too. "After the last one, I told Rob Smith, our new board president, that I would not sit in another executive session for 'legal matters' without our solicitor present. I am done taking legal advice from the superintendent."

Expect that our new board will soon hire the kind of independent, forceful counsel that Andrejko will just hate.