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Monday, January 28, 2013

WARREN COUNTY SCHOOL'S DISTRICT BUDGET BALLOONS IN WAKE OF ATTORNEY HIRE.

WARREN COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS District’s legal costs balloon

After spending no more than $65,684 on fees in any single year since 2007, board hired full-time attorney at $117,500 salary
By CHUCK MASON

The second-highest-paid employee in the Warren County Public Schools is its attorney.

While an attorney earning a good salary might not be surprising, Barton D. Darrell’s $117,500 salary as full-time legal counsel for the school system – compared to legal fees paid by similarly sized Kentucky school systems – is a healthy income indeed and an increase in legal spending for the district compared to years past.

From 2007-11, the highest amount the county school system paid for legal fees in a single fiscal year was $65,684 in FY 2010-11.

School officials say Darrell is worth the money. Superintendent Tim Murley – the system’s highest-paid employee at $145,000 – appreciates Darrell’s contributions to the management staff.

“He’s an expert in school law. Before (he was hired), I was making my best guess,” Murley said.

School board Vice Chairman Mike Wilson said the $117,500 paid Darrell annually is money well spent.

“His salary is below market value,” said Wilson, who considers Darrell’s professional expertise in school law an asset to the district.

“The cost is justified by the size of the district,” Wilson said.

Warren County serves nearly 14,000 students. With the size of the school district and the complexity of the legal issues confronted by the school board, the district could have a full-fledged legal department, Wilson said.

Murley said he has a good working relationship with Darrell and that it has been an asset to the district to have the board counsel on staff, rather than at the other end of a telephone line.

Darrell’s salary is part of a four-year contract with the Warren County Board of Education dated July 22, 2011. It runs through June 20, 2014, and is automatically renewed each fiscal year thereafter. He is subject to a yearly evaluation by the school board, a clause in the contract states. He is required to work 240 days each year.

The school board is required under the contract to pay his insurance, his contribution to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System and $1,000 of membership dues to the Warren County Bar Association, the Kentucky Bar Association and the American Bar Association “unless paid by another entity.”

The school board is to pay for tuition costs for seminars Darrell might attend and $5,000 for professional malpractice insurance. He is to receive a district-provided cellphone for business use and a computer. He is also to be reimbursed for out-of-district travel and “reasonable expenses.”

Darrell said last week that he started paying his own retirement costs this year and has not chosen to bill the district for any expenses.

“I haven’t billed the district a dime,” he said.

The contract grants Darrell the same number of annual sick leave days, holidays, emergency days and personal days as administrators who work a 12-month schedule, and it mandates that Darrell maintain his license to practice law in Kentucky.

Spending comparisons, rising fees

The Bowling Green Independent School District, which serves just under 4,000 students, does not employ a full-time attorney. And other Kentucky school districts that are comparable in size to Warren County’s – Hardin, Daviess and Kenton – do not employ full-time attorneys and pay considerably less in annual legal fees than Warren County.

Before Darrell was hired, Warren County Public Schools paid considerably less annually in legal costs. In the five fiscal years from 2007-08 through 2011-12, the district paid a total of $199,605 for legal services through the Bowling Green law firm of Bell, Orr, Ayers & Moore.

Before serving as the Warren County schools’ legal counsel, Darrell was employed through Bell, Orr, Ayers & Moore as the legal counsel for the Daviess County Public Schools. Daviess County Superintendent Owens Saylor said Darrell was paid $130 an hour. Legal costs to the district in fiscal year 2008-09 were $6,973; in fiscal year 2009-10 they were $13,532 and in fiscal year 2010-11 they were $7,970, Saylor said.

Daviess County has about 10,000 students. Hardin County, which has about 13,000 students, paid $26,000 in legal costs in fiscal year 2010-11, Finance Director Gary Milby said. The district paid $29,000 in fiscal year 2011-12.

Kenton County, which has about 13,000 students, paid $67,945 in legal costs in fiscal year 2011-12, according to records listed online.

In a response to an open records request regarding the Warren County district’s current legal costs, Warren County Public Schools Finance Director Chris McIntyre said in an email:

“Due to the size, growth and complexity of the Warren County Public Schools, an in-house legal expertise was a logical choice. Although Bell Orr Ayers & Moore provided a vital resource, the availability to address vital issues that transpire all hours of the day, night and weekend was a hurdle.”

New role created but empty

The district has an unfilled assistant superintendent’s vacancy created last year. That vacancy can be filled only by someone holding a superintendent of schools certification.

Darrell is taking classes at his law school alma mater, the University of Louisville, to obtain his school superintendent certification.

Nine Warren County school employees, including Murley, already hold a superintendent’s certificate, according to Marcie Lowe, executive staff adviser/legislative liaison for the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board in Frankfort.

Darrell earned his law degree in 1987. He is also a 1984 graduate of Kentucky Wesleyan College, where he serves on the college’s board of trustees. He described the desire to obtain his superintendent certification as a natural progression for him since he comes from “a long history of education” in his family.

While Darrell has neither taught in a public school nor served as a school principal, state law does not preclude him from serving as a superintendent once he receives his certification, which he said he might be able to complete by late spring or early summer of this year.

During a special board meeting June 19, the Warren County school board created a position described in the board minutes as “BOE General Counsel/Assistant Superintendent of Compliance.”

Murley asked the board to create the assistant superintendent position and said he currently has no plans to fill that position or to vacate his own job. Murley said he isn’t grooming anyone to be his successor, and when Murley does retire, the board will be charged with finding his replacement.

“I have 32 years in, and I am 55 years old,” Murley said. “I enjoy what I do, and I will know when it is time not to do it.”

Warren County has one assistant superintendent. A district the size of Warren County could use another assistant superintendent in the organizational structure, but the district can’t afford it, Murley said.

Darrell says he doesn’t have his eye on Murley’s job in Warren County at this time, but he doesn’t rule out applying for the assistant superintendent’s job once he obtains the certification.

“If I were certified and the district had the desire and I was still interested, I would apply for that position,” Darrell said.

School employees holding superintendent certificates

Nine Warren County Public Schools employees have the certification needed to become a superintendent.

Lori Ann Martin, John Dempsey, Joseph “Pat” Stewart, Kathy Goff, Ron Vinson, Reed Norris, Tommy Hodges, David “Shawn” Holland and Murley all hold superintendent certificates, according to an email from Marcie Lowe, executive staff adviser/legislative liaison for the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board in Frankfort.

Goff is the assistant superintendent in the Warren County schools. Martin is an English as a second language teacher at Lost River Elementary School, while Dempsey is an assistant principal at Warren Central High School. Stewart is director of student services at the central office, and Vinson teaches at the Jackson Academy alternative school. Norris works in the central office as director of districtwide student services and is a former principal at Warren East High School, while Hodges is an assistant principal at Warren East. Holland serves as principal at Rich Pond Elementary.

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