STUART — Since July 1, the Martin County School District has spent $61,715 in legal fees, $50,799 of it related to the former head of exceptional student education's charges of harassment.
In the same time period a year ago, the district spent $40,673 in legal fees, which was just above the amount spent for the entire budget year in 2008-09.
And the district is poised to possibly pay attorneys much more.
At its meeting Tuesday evening, the Martin County School Board will consider three purchase orders allowing the district to pay up to $50,000 each to law firms representing the school officials in three pending cases. The $50,000 represents the maximum the district would have to pay in each case. If the $50,000 threshold is crossed, the district's insurance kicks in to pay any fees above that amount.
One of the purchase orders would pay the Boca Raton law firm of Carman Beauchamp & Sang to represent the district in the case of Maryellen Quinn-Lunny, who has claimed she was forced out of her job as head of exceptional student education after she voiced concerns about proposed budget cuts.
The bulk of the legal fees already paid by the district, $45,082, went to the Jacksonville-based law firm of Allen Norton and Blue for an investigation into Quinn-Lunny's allegations. That report found Schools Superintendent Nancy Kline violated school district policy by creating a hostile work environment for Quinn-Lunny.
Kline disagreed with findings in the report, saying it was "incomplete and (did) not encompass all of the issues." She also noted a Nov. 17 report by state Auditor General David W. Martin found "noncompliance and significant deficiency" in Quinn-Lunny's programs because of inadequate record-keeping and overpayments to independent contractors.
Another purchase order being considered Tuesday would pay for Carman Beauchamp & Sang to represent the district in the case of Dorothy Mershon. She filed a lawsuit in October claiming her late husband, Gordon Kent Mershon, a former energy manager for the district, did not have his contract renewed for the 2009-10 school year because he was 64 years old. Kent Mershon died of a heart attack Sept. 23, 2010, at age 65; and the lawsuit claims the death was "a direct and proximate result of the defendant's wrongful conduct."
The third purchase order would pay the West Palm Beach law firm of Williams Leininger & Crosby to represent the district in the case of Linda Martin, who filed a federal lawsuit in August claiming the district illegally sought $184,000 for damages incurred at Jensen Beach High School from Hurricane Frances.
Martin alleges the district added a request for money to repair landscaping, which was not eligible for compensation, to a request for $157,781 for roof repairs at the high school, which was eligible. Martin, who had been hired as public assistance coordinator by the Emergency Management Division of the Florida Department of Community Affairs, claims she was fired after she pointed out the improper request to supervisors.
School Board Chairwoman Sue Hershey called the district's legal fees "exorbitant because they're unprecedented. ... Unfortunately, we have these expenses. Can we avoid them at this point? No."
Hershey said she would "rather see the (purchase orders) come to the board in smaller increments so that we can keep a handle on the expenses."
Kline noted the purchase orders pertain to annual contracts with Carman Beauchamp & Sang and Williams Leininger & Crosby approved by the school board Jan. 17.
"The majority (of the) board hires its own in-house counsel and chooses to contract with outside representation for additional services," Kline said. "My recommendation to reduce legal costs would be to more fully utilize the board's in-house counsel and staff for required legal matters, and when subcontracted services are required, follow standard procurement practices."
COST OF LEGAL REPRESENTATION
Legal fees accrued by the Martin County School District since July 1 include:
$45,082, to the Jacksonville-based law firm of Allen Norton and Blue for an investigation into Quinn-Lunny's allegations.
$3,188 to the Stuart firm of Ross Earle and Bonan to act as a special counsel to school board members Sue Hershey and Laurie Gaylord during the Quinn-Lunny equity investigation.
$1,253 to the West Palm Beach/Stuart law firm of Williams Lenninger and Crosby to represent school board members Maura Barry-Sorenson and Michael Bushas in the Quinn-Lunny equity investigation.
$1,276 to the West Palm Beach law firm of Roberts Reynolds Bedard and Tuzzio for legal services related to the Quinn-Lunny equity investigation.
$4,232 to Roberts Reynolds Bedard and Tuzzio for representing Kline in a lawsuit filed by Gary Sparks, a former middle school assistant principal and school board candidate. Sparks claimed his contract wasn't renewed after he and other Anderson Middle School administrators filed a complaint against Tyrone Kline, the superintendent's husband who at the time was an instructor for academic intervention at Anderson Middle. In August, both sides agreed to dismiss the case, with each paying its own court and attorneys' fees.
$5,822 to the Division of Administrative Hearings for a lawsuit filed by Urban Building Systems of Palm City, which alleged it was improperly passed over for construction projects at Pinewood and Crystal Lakes elementary schools. On Jan. 26, Circuit Judge James W. McCann dismissed the lawsuit but allowed Urban to refile the suit with more specific allegations.
IF YOU GO
What: Martin County School Board meeting
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The school board offices, 500 E. Ocean Blvd. in Stuart