Monday, August 15, 2011

Here come the lawyers - oh the lawyers -- more lawyers

So what's the tally? Anyone know??? Of course not! We have no way of knowing exactly how many millions of our tax dollars have gone to lawyers. We are paying lawyers all over metro Atlanta – lawyers for the criminal lawsuit against Dr. Lewis and Pat (Pope) Reid and others. Lawyers in the civil case (countersuit) by DCSS against Heery/Mitchell. Lawyers to defend the system in reductions in teacher pay, employment dismissals or bullying or nearly $400,000 spent on a judge to investigate bullying only to find that none existed!  On and on.

In February, the AJC informed us in an article entitled, DeKalb schools hire law firm for ex-superintendent, that the school board capped Dr. Lewis' defense fund at $100,000. Then, Judge Cynthia Becker decided that Dr. Lewis had to find a new lawyer, as his current lawyer is a member of a firm representing DCSS' new construction manager, Barbara Colman's firm.  Colman is scheduled to testify for the school system. So, has the board now thrown more money Lewis' way? Do taxpayers realize that they are paying for the prosecution and the defense in these cases?  In that article, we also discover the following:
DeKalb County schools have capped the amount of money the district will spend representing former Superintendent Crawford Lewis in an ongoing civil lawsuit at $100,000.

The school board has hired Atlanta law firm Goodman McGuffey Lindsey & Johnson to represent Lewis in the school system’s ongoing lawsuit construction manager Heery/Mitchell, but capped the expense at $100,000, district spokesman Jeff Dickerson said Friday.

This is the third law firm the board has hired to help with the suit. The district has already spent $15.5 million in legal fees in the case. The district is seeking $100 million from Heery, alleging fraud and mismanagement.

Earlier this month, the suit was moved from federal to DeKalb State Court and 17 new defendants were added to the suit, including the individual board members and Lewis. Lewis was terminated April and has since been indicted on charges he ran a criminal enterprise at the school system.
Well guess what! Again, according to the AJC, the school board just voted in February of this year to spend $700,000 defending seven former board members in the construction lawsuit. One of the seven, Sarah Copelin Wood is actually still a sitting board member. (Did Sarah vote to spend money on her own legal defense?)

So, the law firm, Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson, LLP in Atlanta, was given carte blanche to spend $700,000! Yowsa! And these are "bit players" in the big scheme of the Heery/Mitchell case.

Allow me to continue. But get a tissue, you will cry.

The board has a separate contract with attorney Halsey Knapp, Jr. for former board member Simone Manning-Moon.

There are other, miscellaneous law firms that are hired to handle worker's comp and other employee issues - cases that Josie Alexander is already under contract to handle.

Let's add the aforementioned $15.5 million spent at King & Spalding on the Heery/Mitchell case. The Daily Reporter tells us that King & Spalding might be pushing the limits on this case. The DA "stopped just short of accusing the firm of making a frivolous bid to halt discovery, implying via carefully placed quotation marks that King & Spalding and the school district engaged in disingenuous legal reasoning".
DeKalb DA Robert D. James Jr. wrote that King & Spalding and its client showed "bad faith and collusion" and claimed attorney-client privilege "where it does not exist" in discovery-related matters.
Did I mention that we have paid over $15 million for King & Spalding's legal representation so far? And there is no court date yet on the docket. Judge Seelinger ordered them to remediation out of concern for taxpayers dollars, saying, “This has grown far, far too expensive for the parties, and one party is the school board. Taxpayers are paying for this. Mediation is the best way to get this resolved."  However, that remediation quickly disintegrated.

This is taxpayer money - earmarked by the state and county for educating our children. How much more will taxpayers be forced to spend on law suits instead? What would happen if taxpayers revolted and refused to pay the school tax portion of the property tax bill? What would happen if the state stepped in and demanded an accounting of exactly how many state tax dollars are going into the pockets of lawyers instead of the backpacks of students? How much more of this financial vortex of legal fees must taxpayers endure? When on earth will this nonsense end? Are there any adults in the entire state of Georgia willing to step up and demand answers?

Ramona Tyson promised to the parents attending her first public meeting, the Emory Lavista Parent Council meeting back in April of 2010 that she would conduct an audit. In fact, the ELPC minutes quote her as saying, "The priority will be to protect the services closest to students while conducting a forensic audit to examine programs that are not working." (Click here to review the other unfulfilled promises made at that meeting.)

A small, but rumbling group of parents is fed up. They have begun a campaign to declare the school board incompetent. They are currently taking an approval rating poll and may invoke a public vote of No Confidence. Thank goodness for the will of everyday parents and taxpayers. Maybe they can make a difference where no highly-paid, high-powered official has even raised an eyebrow. Fran Millar tried. He posed placing former state school board president, Brad Bryant as superintendent in order to clean house and mend fences.  After giving Bryant a cursory interview, he was completely ignored. Two additional, viable candidates were sabotaged in the process. Nancy Jester, Pam Speaks, Don McChesney and Paul Womack tried to alert the public regarding the behind-the-scenes manipulation in an email, but were publicly criticized by the board chair. How odd is that? The messengers who informed us of wrong-doing are the ones to be criticized by their leader. However, that same leader put forth no effort to root out the saboteurs.

The comment below was posted by Carolyn Henry Rader on Maureen Downey's 'Get Schooled' article "Can someone shake DeKalb school board out of its fog so it can see mounting problems in schools?"

"A few parents and citizens of DeKalb representing Central and South DeKalb met for the first time last night to start the process of forming a county-wide “Parents Coalition”. There is enough talent, passion, professional and business acumen throughout DeKalb County that needs to be tapped into and utilized. It is time to mobilize parents, business and community leaders to move our school system from dismal to successful. There is no more waiting around for Board members to do this but we welcome those who are passionate about helping the whole school system to move forward in a positive direction. A strategic planning process for DeKalb may be the first item on the agenda and one that includes input from the community, and ultimately produces a bold vision and mission that we all can work towards and uphold. And one more thought – change the name of the School Board to a ‘Board of Trustees’ – elected community members who are entrusted to uphold and be accountable for ensuring the jointly (community/school administration) led strategic plan is followed and implemented. Our next meeting is August 24, The Marlay, in Decatur, at 6:15 pm. Please see http://www.washoe.k12.nv.us/community/strategic-plan
for an inspiring example of a school district that decided enough was enough and they embarked on a powerful strategic planning process with strong community partnership move their schools from failure to success."


Our board does not realize just how fed up the public is with their lack of fiduciary responsibility to the people of DeKalb. What level of cognitive dissonance do our board members have in order to continue this never-ending cycle of outrageous (but hidden) legal fees and bad governance?  How disengaged are our state leaders in that they can continue to turn blind eyes to irresponsible actions of the DeKalb School Board?

At the very least, a NO vote on SPLOST IV this November would send a strong signal that taxpayers won't "take it" anymore.  Do not give them access to another half-billion dollars to squander.  Replace this board and place new school administrators and then we'll revisit SPLOST next year.

Message to DeKalb School Board:  No. More. Money.



39 comments:

TiQuavious Leroy Jones said...

I have yet to come across anyone in my group of friends and neighbors that plan to vote yes on the Splost. We've got to make the junkie go cold turkey. Withdrawal will be traumatic. All sorts of "cards" will be played to try and get the Splost funding. Should prove to be an interesting show to watch.

Cerebration said...

Make the junkie go cold turkey -- good one!

FWIW - this in not a now or never SPLOST. If the powers that be prove themselves trustworthy and organized and if they can produce a plan for SPLOST that is first and foremost - EDUCATIONALLY DRIVEN - then yes, we'll endorse moving forward. (That - and resolving our current legal issues.)

But we need to see a plan that describes the vision for educating children - as in - we plan to create pre-K academies and attack early learning very hard. We plan to create small learning groups in early grades that give support and double doses of reading and math for struggling learners and pull out acceleration for those ready to move on. We plan to have art rooms, gyms, music rooms and well-stocked media libraries at every school. We plan to offer small team-approach communities in our middle schools. We plan to use small learning communities in high schools - and allow free-flowing transfers between schools - as well as a selection of magnet and theme schools for those interested in a specialty. We want to focus on job prep and plan to create 2 or 3 high tech vocational high schools. We plan to implement one on one access to technology with iPads, laptops, Using the internet for online lectures and outreach - Etc, Etc... And in order to provide this kind of education - here's what we will need for buildings...

All I see now is facts about the buildings - attendance lines - AYP transfers - capacity vs enrollment. Nothing about actual education. We want to be able to visualize the future of education for the children of DeKalb.

Plus - we're in the middle of a $100 million construction lawsuit and a criminal lawsuit with a couple of dozen former employees and board members involved - costing us literally millions upon millions for lawyers. Get over that major hump and we'll take a hesitant look at more construction.

Anonymous said...

We can be shown on a a spreadsheet how much money is spent annually on toilet paper, but can anyone in the DeKalb County School System show the taxpayers how much money has honestly been spent on attorneys in the last five (5) years? Mr. Turk or someone should be able to simply punch a few buttons on their computer and print out a clean list including the names of the firms, the number of checks written and the dollar amounts on those checks. As taxpayers, we are more than tired of the potential misuse of school system funds. My guess is that if the amounts were not so high and outrageous, there would be some transparency. However, since DCSS transparency is opaque, I wonder what they are hiding and how much they are spending? But most importantly, how does this amount impact our student "per pupil" expense?

Bhutrasgolly said...

`Let me see if I really understand your reasoning. So the real way to save tax payer money is not to have a lawyer when you are sued? Just get it over with, go to court alone, and hazard the payout? And the way to get good board members is to tell them that any time you are sued; you are on your own? If I was suing board members I would be sure to include they system in the suit. The system has the money. I think we could probably save money by behaving more ethically and praying for no frivolous lawsuits-but even if that happens it won’t provide us with any immunity from law suits or any guarantee that we will win those suits with or without lawyers.

And our final logic is that in order to punish these past miscreants we will deny our children. Makes sense-since we can't punish the board let us punish the students and ourselves.

Anonymous said...

At a recent BOE meeting, maybe about a month ago, in response to a request from Ms Jester Mr Turk promised in public that he would detail the expenses for attorneys. Maybe Ms Jester can publish that if Mr Turk has kept his promise.

As Dr Walker openly says, spending money for attorneys is OK as long as they are diversity (code word for you know what) attorneys.

SPLOST 4 probably will pass. The South DeKalb BOE contingent will promise their constituent voters that most of the money will be raised in North DK and most spent in South DK. Both are probably correct. SPLOST is really nothing more than a cushion to pay the administrators whose bloat and salaries prevent paying for repairs and capital improvements from the regular budget.

With the 50% decrease in the County tax register due to plunging property values in South DK, I wonder how much of the DCSS school budget that South DK now really pays. Plus, I wonder how many South DK properties are exempt from paying school taxes.

Cerebration said...

On that note, we found that Zepora Roberts only pays about $300 a year in total property tax on her home. (Her neighbors all pay $900 - $1200 and up.)

Anonymous said...

Maybe Zepora gets a discount because of her valuable service to our county.

Sagamore 7 said...

On a similar note regarding SPLOST IV.

If we vote against SPLOST IV, the school board has the ability to REVOKE our homestead exemption to increase funding for the school system through our property taxes.

We either vote FOR SPLOST IV and have a 1 cent sales tax pay for our schools or we vote AGAINST SPLOST IV and have another increase to our property taxes.

Who do you want pay for for the SPLOST? Us or others?

S7

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you do the math, your homestead exception savings are probably equivalent to what you spend in the extra penny sales tax -- unless you do most of your shopping outside of DeKalb.

If SPLOST fails, the system can bring it back for a vote in 12 months.

Sagamore, your children will go to Henderson Middle, right?

SPLOST needs to fail, regardless of what your community has been promised. (IE a larger Henderson Middle) If it passes, it is the ultimate sign of confidence in this board and this system.

Sorry -- short term pain for long term gain.

Cerebration said...

Sagamore7 - We are pretty much at the top of the millage rate for our property taxes. And if we vote down SPLOST, all that happens is we lose the homestead reimbursement which should be somewhere between (from what I've heard) $60 and $200 a year. (Many of us would almost save that much by having the sales tax reduced a penny over the course of a year. Plus, we can revisit a SPLOST tax in a year, if we have confidence.

The Deal said...

This is what we need to do with the central office salaries:

http://www.ajc.com/news/georgia-politics-elections/lottery-employees-lose-big-1108715.html

Anonymous said...

A Homestead school tax exemption of $200 per year (mine is about that) is the one cent equivalent of spending $20,000 per year on taxable goods and services in DeKalb County. I sure do not spend that much.

You have to hand it to DCSS on this one. They hold a gun to the heads of the taxpayers to continue their profligate and corrupt (CLew + Pope at least) ways.

I now remember a BOE meeting a while ago at which Marcus Turk commented about pulling the exemption if SPLOST 4 was not passed. He seemed to be taking delight in giving the warning.

Any productive taxpaying person who is thinking about moving to DeKalb County is in need of mental help. I have been here for almost 20 years and watched the deterioration of both the County government and the school system operations. Because of the demographic change there was no way to stop the election of the people who caused this.

Sagamore 7 said...

Anon 2:48.
Yes to HMS. One is there currently and the other is still at SHES.

My point is that DCSS will get their funding for SPLOST with or without us and the vote.

It also requires APS, Fulton and Decatur City Schools to approve it in their districts also.

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Anyone for an "Online Check Register"?

With the new super, (which will be elected by this board, with or without us) and the new Triage program and everything else going on we will not see any significant results for quite a while.

I do think we can have an online check register and start with accountability with the checks!

BTW, did anyone notice on Atkinson's resume that she put down as an "Honor and Award" the following:

"Served as vice chair of the national district review team of the SACS and CASI for district accreditation for Cobb County, Ga."

It look as if she did this prior to 2006.

S7

Cerebration said...

But Anon, SPLOST doesn't currently save the whole exemption - it's sort of a rebate on part of it - depending on what they collect. I am told that for most people it's only going to raise your property taxes by $57. It's a certain percentage of your homestead that you get rebated - the same for everyone.

As the time approaches, we'll try to dig up the facts on the subject from reliable sources - like the tax commissioner.

Anonymous said...

The exemption is very small and the total raised from the exemption, if SPLOST fails, will be very small.

SPLOST failing will send a clear and concise message to all involved -- things are not good and they need to improve before we hand over another 500 million dollars.

Everyone needs to see the big picture here -- and worry about the entire system and not just their little piece.

Anonymous said...

SPLOST should be split like HOST.
80% for the taxpayers as a credit against the outrageous school taxes and 20% for DCSS to waste. The County wastes most of its 20% o the South DeKalb Sidewalks program.

Atlanta Media Guy said...

Do we need to FOIA request Turk to release the DCSS payments to law firms? I'll send an email to Nancy Jester and find out if she got the info she asked Turk for.

I bet the amount is staggering, or they would have released it by now.

Cerebration said...

That would be wonderful! Thanks for dogging this AMG!

resident2012 said...

The SPLOST vote is held when there are no other major contests (except this year the transportation and Sunday liquor sale issues are up for vote as well) So turnout will be low and the vote can be swayed by special interest groups. One group is the employees of DCSS who may be urged by administrators to vote for the SPLOST tax. But it is a violation of Professional Standards for any employees to promote any political cause on school property during school time. Urging staff to support SPLOST is no different than urging staff to vote for a certain candidate. It has happened in the past. We will see what happens this time around.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean Open Records Request? FOI is for Federal Documents only.

Atlanta Media Guy said...

Having actually done open records requests and FOIA's most everyone here know I say FOIA out of habit. I apologize.

I can say a request is difficult since they bring you boxes of files and you basically you sit there and copy away, nothing can leave the building. We did it back in 2006 at the old DCSS HQ. Spent a whole day there. Hopefully Ms. Jester can shine a light on this budget item.

Cere, I am incredibly honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as you at the AJC blog. It's been a bit wild over there. I look forward to the day when I can actually meet you face to face.

Anonymous said...

Why don't these great complainers really try to make a difference by for the Board of Education. As for Splost, I am disappointed that Chamblee got all that money that should have spread across the county. Ofcourse, thanks to Redovian, he took care of Chamblee. As for Brad Bryant, as Supt." ANYBODY BUT BRAD". He negoiated the Mitchel deal. No more curruption. Let Brad contonue to do what ever it is he does but not in DeKalb. Who wants to go backwards.

Anonymous said...

Most DeKalb employees DO NOT LIVE OR VOTE IN DeKalb. Check out the car tags in the parking lots around the county. Ask yourselves, do we want progress for our children or senior citizens griping all of the time. Like Zeapora , many seniors don't pay ANY School Tax because of an age/income exemption.

Shoes Keep Dropping said...

With all due respect, the lawyer fees and SPLOST are huge topics that need to be discussed but for the next 14 days, we need to stay focused on the superintendent's job and let our BOE members know how we feel. Any news on a public "meet the candidate" event or terms of the contract?

@S7: Atkinson was also on a SACS and CASI review panel in NC so she has definite connections to SACS and "Look the Other Way" Elgart. She worked in Rockdale County, she's an AKA...next thing we'll hear is her relative goes to New Birth!! Anyone find out anything about the grade changing accusation?

Cerebration said...

Thanks AMG! I look forward to meeting you one day also...

And Anon - you're kidding right? Have you ever SEEN Chamblee HS? The kids have actually taken pictures of rats and cockroaches in the halls and classrooms. Some of the roofs have cracks that show blue sky! (Dr Lewis showed us pictures of that over 4 years ago!) No auditorium. Crappy labs. Nasty restrooms. Mold. CCHS takes on transfers from all over the county and you think it should just remain a hellhole?

Go there. Compare it to say, Arabia - SW DEKalb, MLK, Miller Grove, Tucker. Towers, which is severely under-enrolled has had major $$$ poured into it. Same with Columbia. We have some super nice high schools in the county - and some horrible ones. Cross Keys still has a long way to go - as does Cedar Grove. Redan needs some major TLC. But really, Chamblee currently (and for quite some time) takes the prize for nastiest building in DeKalb county.

Passionate... said...

I get it [No SPLOST...fed up parents finally form group...Increase furlough days...increase student/teacher ratio...don't fix school parking lots and curbs with holes that you fall through...Pay lawyers to represent crooks...hire Lorain superintendent that has made "baby steps" in the past four years...BOE sends inappropriate emails...most staff live outside DeKalb] Still many teachers remain faithful and passionate about teaching and learning...amazing folks...amazing! Count your blessings if you know teachers that are doing a great job on behalf of our children in DeKalb.

Cerebration said...

Exactly! Even as the operating budget dwindles and dwindles. These lawyers fees - fighting criminal and civil cases related to the construction projects - can't be paid with SPLOST dollars. That means they MUST come from the Operations budget. We have to assume - because Turk nor anyone else will tell us. This means from the mouths of babes to the pockets of the adults.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of paying for attorneys.

Did you look at the Board Metting for Wednesday?

Marcus Turk and DCSS is borrowing $75,000,000 to put in the "General Operating" fund of DCSS to pay for expenses until December.

Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

I think the grade changing thing may be a red herring -- not finding it on any version of google search.

Cerebration said...

I never was able to find anything either. I think that was coming from some hackers.

Anonymous said...

My cousin use to cover legal issues for the WSJ. I sent him this blog and he said that this is common across all levels of government -- no one has a handle on how much governments are spending for outside counsel, often because the costs are tucked into a myriad of account codes. He says it is the great mystery of government. Freedom of information requests are hard because you have to ask for exactly what you want -- they don't have to provide extra information.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Shoes Keep Dropping. As important as these issues are, we cannot lose focus on the urgeny, time-sensitive issue of hiring a superintendent.

bills12man said...

I will never vote for a SPLOST again. Back when there were meetings to discuss a new Peachtree Middle School, I asked if anyone checked on the cost of renovation? The question basically got ignored and I was dropped from the e-mail list for infromation. Isn't it amazing when you ask an intelligent question and they don't want to answer they try to make you disappear.
Now we have a school that has better electrical, but less and smaller classrooms (we now have trailers for this new building), a floor that is not as durable as the previous building, walls that the kids easily put holes in (try to put holes in the old cinder block), and an ac/heating system that still doesn't cool or heat the building uniformally (some places you need coats, some places you need shorts).
I am fed up with the lack of thought on how to use the money, just spend it.

Irate Parent said...

Thank GOD we are moving into an action plan. I am so tired of talking. We are reasonable people dealing with an unethical system that continues to steal our money, use our children for financial gain and abuse our teachers. We must vote NO on SPLOST! So what if they have to revoke the Homestead Exemption... we have to do what we can to let them know we are not going to GIVE them any more of our money. Make them TAKE it like the criminals that they are. SPLOST is a way of asking us to pay... it is time we said NO! And, by the way, STOP the cell towers. This is money that will be funnelled directly into these attorneys' pockets to defend the ones with taxpayer blood on their hands. They voted in the towers because they don't have to report how that money will be spent. If you live near one of the cell tower schools, please contact your county commissioner to let them know that you were not given a public forum to discuss the issue of leasing school property to a commercial interest. STOP funding the defense of these thugs. STOP paying their friends and family for doing NOTHING but making a mess of the paperwork and covering the tracks of the guilty. NO ON SPLOST!

Erin Brochovich said...

When exactly is this SPLOST vote anyway?

Anonymous said...

bills12man, yes, I know exactly what you mean. Ask a question and they want to know why you want to know. Then they try to either bring you into the fold (so you will keep quiet in hopes of special treatment for your child) and if that doesn't work they "expel" you politely to a school choice that might work better for you and cut you out of any information trains. Been there. Hello DCSS... guess what... it's called PARENT INVOLVEMENT... get used to it! We are fed up and we are not going away!

Anonymous said...

Check out this great example folks: http://parentscoalitionmc.blogspot.com/

The Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, Maryland seeks to achieve the goals of coherent, content-rich curriculum standards; high expectations combined with timely remediation and acceleration; a wider range of educational options for parents and children; greater transparency and accountability; and meaningful community input.

Anonymous said...

Erin Brochovich
The vote in on the November ballot this year.

Ella Smith said...

I do not intend to vote for SPlOST IV.

I agree it is time to say, "No until you show us accountability in spending."

The money spent on lawyers is unthinkable. DeKalb needs to try to do things right and stay out of court as much as possible. It is not fair to the students and taxpayers of DeKalb County.

If a teacher has to go to court regarding a law they have broken while in the classroom, the school system does not pay their attorney bills. I do think some though needs to be given to the amount of money spent on attorneys. Are some individuals getting special treatment here?