Newark board members ramp up attorney search before next school year

Newark Superintendent Roger León listened as charter school advocates and critics voiced their opinions at the board meeting.
The nine-member Newark Board of Education plans to hire its own legal representation before the 2023-24 school year. (Devna Bose/Chalkbeat)

The Newark Board of Education plans to speed up its search for an attorney after some members raised concerns over a “drawn-out” process during Tuesday’s school board meeting. 

The search for an attorney first began six months ago when the board approved a resolution to acquire its own legal representation. Currently, the board shares an attorney with the district.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board members discussed potential next steps in their attorney search and evaluated the district’s recommendations, which include creating a committee to oversee the process. 

But board member Crystal Williams emphasized the urgency of having an attorney in place before the start of the next school year while President Asia Norton cautioned the other members about following district protocols. 

“When you’re hiring someone we have to follow things. We have to make sure that we are in compliance legally,” said Norton during Tuesday’s discussion. “If we have a misstep it won’t be viewed as an accident, it would be viewed as a legal matter.” 

Most school boards in New Jersey have their own counsel so they can act independently when board opinions differ from that of the superintendent, whom they are required to hold accountable. 

The Newark board approved a resolution to secure a separate attorney for its nine-member board in January after news of Superintendent Roger León’s contract renewal sparked criticism from community members and raised questions about the board’s legal authority. 

The board solicited proposals from interested law firms in May and received 12 bids at the beginning of June. Board members had not received a list of those firms prior to Tuesday’s discussion. 

Among the firms that submitted proposals is the Souder, Shabazz & Woolridge law group, which is representing two of four board members facing ethics complaints currently before the New Jersey School Ethics Commission.

The attorney would be in addition to Brenda Liss, general counsel for Newark Public Schools, whose duties are much broader and include representing the superintendent and other members of the administration.

Norton said the district recommended that the board create a committee to review the submitted proposals and spearhead the process. 

“It was not supposed to be this long, drawn-out process. This is dragging on way too long,” said Williams during Tuesday’s meeting.

Norton also said the board needs to review proposals and conduct interviews, a process “that will take time” and needs to be taken into consideration before a decision is made in August. Vice President Dawn Haynes said those “interviews are an option and should not stagnate the progress.”

Board member Josephine Garcia, who was elected in 2017, said the last time the current board hired someone was in 2018 when the school system returned to local control and hired León. She said the process consisted of special meetings and discussions among board members to evaluate applicants and come to a consensus. 

Garcia agreed that there was a need for a process but said a discussion among colleagues prior to Tuesday’s meeting would have “made this conversation flow easier.” 

Board member A’Dorian Murray Thomas recommended the board create an ad-hoc committee to evaluate candidates but asked that submitted proposals be shared with the entire board. 

“We should have board action on this by August so come September we come in with our attorney,” Murray-Thomas said. 

The board must evaluate each law firm’s ability to handle legal matters in education and the cost of its representation. Board members did not decide whether to create a committee to oversee the process or select members from the board to form part of the committee. Tuesday’s board meeting ended in an executive session, which was not open to the public.

The board also voted to approve one-year term contracts for legal services for the district to six law firms for the 2023-24 fiscal year at the rate of $200 per hour for attorneys and $90 per hour for paralegals. The firms will handle legal matters on behalf of the board as needed.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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