Bypassing DA offices, some boards can pay big bucks for special counsel

After paying zilch for nearly 20 years for legal services provided by the District Attorney’s Office, the Lafayette Parish School Board faces a hit to its budget in the coming year as it plans to hire its own general counsel.

Other school districts in Acadiana that have private attorneys serving as general counsel pay anywhere from $29,000 to $113,000 a year for services such as attending board meetings and advising the board or staff on day-to-day issues.

The Lafayette Parish School Board begins its search for a replacement general counsel next week, having relieved the District Attorney’s Office of those duties in November.

The board’s decision to hire general counsel isn’t an unusual one, and until November, it was the only district in the area that used a DA’s Office as its general counsel.

At least two school districts in Acadiana — Iberia and Vermilion — employ their own attorney as a full-time school district employee. Both districts enroll fewer students and employ fewer people than Lafayette Parish.

In Acadia, St. Landry and St. Martin parishes, a private attorney’s services are used for general counsel and to handle some litigation matters and sales tax collection duties.

Vermilion Parish school system has employed an in-house attorney, Calvin “Woody” Woodruff, since 2007.

Woodruff’s annual salary is $113,000, and he also serves as the district’s risk manager. In the dual role, he handles all the district’s legal matters — with the exception of some types of litigation — and also provides legal, ethics and safety training to employees, Vermilion Parish School Superintendent Jerome Puyau said.

“Mr. Woodruff’s constant presence and availability to provide advice and counsel to the board and staff are of immeasurable value to the operation of our district. All of our administrators, teachers and support staff have unrestricted access to Mr. Woodruff’s services,” Puyau said.

Puyau estimated it would cost the district nearly $400,000 annually to duplicate Woodruff’s legal services, based on a state-approved special counsel rate of $175 an hour for an attorney with his experience and to fill the position of risk manager.

When the Iberia Parish School Board decided to hire a full-time, in-house attorney a few years ago, it selected the former assistant district attorney who had served as its general counsel, Wayne Landry. Landry’s annual salary as the district’s on-staff attorney is $80,000.

“The issues that have continued to confront school systems over the years is one that necessitated the hiring of a board attorney, especially a school system of our size,” Iberia Parish School Superintendent Dale Henderson said.

Iberia Parish enrolls about 14,000 students and employs more than 1,000 faculty members.

The accessibility to an attorney on the system’s staff is an advantage for the school district, Henderson said.

Landry said the district still receives assistance from the DA’s Office when he is out of town or in cases where he’s unable to preside as a hearing officer for a district matter.

Landry said he handles the day-to-day legal work for the district, though it still retains special counsel for specialized litigation, such as tax issues.

In St. Martin, Acadia and St. Landry school districts, a private attorney is employed as general counsel to the board and provides legal advice on district matters.

St. Martin Parish hasn’t considered hiring a full-time, in-house attorney mainly because its general counsel, attorney Mark Boyer, is so accessible, St. Martin Parish School Superintendent Lottie Beebe said..

“I call him when I need him,” Beebe said. “He and the school board have a great working relationship.”

The district paid Boyer more than $67,000 last fiscal year for his services.

In St. Landry Parish, attorney Gerard Caswell’s general counsel fee is $30,000 a year, or a flat fee of $2,500 a month, said Tressa Miller, the St. Landry Parish school system finance director.

Caswell also handled the district’s sales tax collections and defense of worker’s compensation, tenure hearings and other employee claims for a fee of $125 an hour, which cost the district $45,124 last fiscal year, Miller said.

Caswell also is general counsel in Acadia Parish, which paid about $29,000 for his legal services last fiscal year and this fiscal year’s estimated expense for his legal services is about $31,000, said Doug Chance, Acadia Parish school system business supervisor.

The Lafayette board’s general counsel search committee meets on Tuesday. The board hired its current special counsel, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, as interim general counsel. For now, the firm is working at an agreed-upon special rate, which is up to $175 an hour for attorneys like Jon Guice. Guice attended the board’s last board meeting on March 5 as interim general counsel.

School Board President Hunter Beasley said Thursday that negotiations for interim general counsel fees are pending.