Hamilton County school board attorney gets new $20,000-a-month retainer fee

Hamilton County school board attorney gets new $20,000-a-month retainer fee

April 24th, 2018 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Attorney Scott Bennett speaks during a meeting at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Board of Education attorney Scott Bennett now will get paid $20,000 a month, and that might not cover everything.

The school board approved a new agreement Thursday with Bennett, of Bennett & DeCamp PLLC, but the agreement excludes some special education cases. Those are some of the longest and costliest cases with which the board has been involved. Though board members were puzzled earlier this year by Bennett's actions on Ooltewah High School rape litigation, they unanimously approved the agreement.

Hamilton County Schools’ legal costs

December 2016: $23,111

January 2017: $25,697

February 2017: $19,313

March 2017: $16,978

April 2017: $39,976

May 2017: $27,133

June 2017: $30,295

July 2017: $42,680

August 2017: $25,666

September 2017: $23,248

October 2017: $39,938

November 2017: $26,532

December 2017: $24,418

January 2018: $9,085>February 2018: $22,358

March 2018: $25,193

Source: Hamilton County Board of Education documents

Document: Scott Bennett letter

Read the letter from Scott Bennett to the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Bennett pitched the agreement to the board as a savings: Last year, the district spent more than $364,000 on legal services, all but $3,400 of which went to Bennett and his firm. The new agreement could save the board $100,000 a year, unless the district is involved in a special education case that goes to court.

Bennett defended the agreement, saying those cases can be time consuming.

"Sometimes [when you] find yourself in special education litigation, it can take over all your time for [an] extremely short period [of] time," he said.

In the written agreement presented to the board last week, it notes that such cases are "very infrequent; the last one in Hamilton County was in 2013."

However, one of the biggest cases brought against the board that involves a student with disabilities has been winding through the court system for years and is being appealed at the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In 2017, a federal judge ruled that the school district had violated multiple federal guidelines to protect students with disabilities when it removed a second-grader, Luka Hyde, with Down syndrome from Normal Park Elementary School in 2013.

Under the new retainer agreement, that kind of case would not fall under the $20,000-a-month fee. If attorneys don't settle such as case early on and it goes to court, then Bennett and DeCamp would bill the district $195 an hour as the case moves forward.

School board members said they support the agreement, especially if it saves money.

"I like Scott, I think he knows the law," said board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1. "I don't think there are any other attorneys around who know school law like him."

But some board members also felt Bennett was keeping them in the dark related to ongoing litigation earlier this year.

In February, a federal judge said Bennett and other board attorneys "wasted the court's time" by making the judge review evidence that he'd already ordered them to release. A week later, a different judge said Bennett and another board attorney couldn't depose three expert witnesses before trial because they didn't do it in time.

The news left some board members mystified about what was happening with the litigation.

During the work session last week, board Chairman Steve Highlander, of District 9, asked that Bennett keep track of the hours that would have been billable otherwise in the coming months, something board member Joe Smith, of District 3, also expressed interest in.

"I'd like to see on a monthly basis, or certainly time to time, exactly what they are doing in terms of what they're billing us for," Smith said, something the system's central office already tracks. Smith added that the agreement was a "no-brainer" if it would save the board money.

Bennett provides legal services on a variety of matters to the board, including personnel issues, student issues, civil rights, athletics, among others. Special education issues that do not end up in court, such as administrative state complaints, complaints through the Office of Civil Rights, or even the need to have an attorney at an individual education plan meeting, all fall under the retainer fee.

Legal costs range depending on what's going on, but the board spent more than $20,000 in most months in 2017. For example, while the district spent $9,085 on legal fees this January, it spent $25,193 in March.

Bennett, who spent more than 20 years at Leitner, Williams, Dooley and Napolitan, used to bill the school board an hourly rate for his counsel. This February, Bennett and his partner, Mary DeCamp, established their own practice and he drafted this agreement.

Bennett said he and his partner formed their own firm because of their desire to specialize in education and the public sector. Their clients include several other school districts and law enforcement agencies as well as local employers.

It felt wrong, Bennett said, sending a bill to the Hamilton County school board every month because of the nature of the relationship.

"It felt unseemly given the nature of the work we were doing and the way we were trying to serve our community. This retainer arrangement, we believe, lets us be partners with school officials," Bennett said.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.


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