FIRST ON 3: Lewis to recommend Muscogee schools keep law firm - WRBL

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FIRST ON 3: Lewis to recommend Muscogee schools keep law firm

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COLUMBUS, Ga. - FIRST ON WRBL NEWS 3: Muscogee schools superintendent David Lewis will recommend the district continue a six decade old relationship with the Hatcher-Stubbs law firm, WRBL News 3 has learned from obtained documents.

As WRBL News 3 reported Tuesday, Muscoguee County School District Superintendent Lewis had private research firm Hanover Research prepare a report to assist him with his recommendation process. The 20-page report will be presented by Lewis to the Board of Education Tuesday, the same night Lewis is expected to give his official recommendation on continuing the law firm's agreement. Although Lewis would not speak to News 3 about what he plans to say Tuesday night, an e-mail sent by Lewis to school board members - and obtained by WRBL News 3 - states Lewis plans to recommend Hatcher-Stubbs continue as the district's legal counsel:

"Therefore, given the results of the independent research and evaluation provided by Hanover Research, the historical institutional knowledge Hatcher-Stubbs possesses, the fact that their hourly rate of billing is within or less than the range identified in the evaluation for districts of similar size with no increase since 2005, and the proven track record of success that most recently resulted in the district prevailing in a case dating back to the early 1980’s that represents an approximate cost avoidance of $5 million dollars, I will be recommending that Hatcher-Stubbs serve as the district’s legal counsel at next week’s Board Meeting."
READ MORE: Lewis' complete e-mail (PDF document)

A News 3 investigation revealed the Muscogee County School District spent $700,000 on legal fees in 2012. The school district has exclusively used Hatcher-Stubbs for more than 60 years. Some - including Georgia State Senator Josh McKoon and local political consultant Frank Myers - have called for the district to use an open-bidding process or in-house legal counsel as an alternative to the exclusive agreement. The open-bidding process would allow the district to consider pricing from competing law firms.

"I think it shows a shocking lack of public transparency," said McKoon, who claims the school district overpays for legal services. McKoon says he will present a bill that would prohibit no-bid legal deals for boards of educations across the state in the next few weeks during the Georgia Legislative Session.

Members of the school board who support the law firm say legal counsel cannot just be switched for another because more than money is at play when choosing good legal representation. They say there’s a level of comfort with Hatcher-Stubbs.

"Legal services, professional services, they're similar to what many of us experience when we go to a physician. You develop comfort, you know their education, you know their background, their experience -- in this case with Hatcher-Stubbs we know all of that about them," said Rob Varner during an interview with News 3 in November.

Frank Myers says he is disappointed with Lewis' planned recommendation, but not surprised:

"Now all of a sudden the attention shifts from Mr. Lewis to the school board members because Mr. Lewis doesn't get a vote," Myers says in an interview with News 3. "He gets a recommendation and we are now beginning an election year [where] you have 5 seats on the board that are coming up this year."

Lewis declined an interview with News 3 regarding the Hanover report but the district's Communication Director Valerie Fuller issued a statement saying:

"The Hanover Report will be posted as an agenda item in the interest of full transparency to the public, but there will be no interviews or discussion prior to the Board meeting as it would be inappropriate to do so prior to the Board's review."

The report is included in the services Hanover Research provide in part of a 3-year contract with the school district. In an October board meeting, the board voted to approve the contract for $30,000 dollars a year, for a total of $90,000 dollars. The school district says services from Hanover Research are utilized in lieu of filling a research and evaluation position in the school district.

The report explains their research for the legal counsel report was obtained by phone interviews with 3 experts who have strong understanding of district practices in Georgia and Alabama, surveys with school districts nationwide (200 schools were sent surveys, 26 responded) and supplementary resources such as media articles, textbooks and dissertations. Myers says he has concerns about how the company obtained there data.

“It's pretty clear that the report was put together for the purpose of giving the superintendent cover to do pretty much whatever he wanted to do. You could take that report and go either way with it. I don't think it's a thorough report,” says Myers.

Board member Cathy Williams also told us she had concerns about the thoroughness of the report, but wanted to address them with the superintendent first.

Lewis' planned recommendation and the board's vote will take place at next Tuesday's (1/21) board meeting at 6:00 p.m.

Additional documents:

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James Brierton

James joined WRBL News 3 with experience from CNN, NBC News and his own hyper-local news site. He manages the WRBL News 3 Web desk. More>>

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