MAHOMET — A divide that marked the reorganization meeting of the new Mahomet-Seymour board of education extended to a discussion regarding legal counsel for the school district Tuesday night.
The question was whether to continue previous board practice. The agenda item stated: “The firms Miller, Tracy, Braun, Funk & Miller Ltd., Franczek Radelet and Kriha Law LLC serve as current District legal counsel at the discretion of the Superintendent.”
The recommendation of Superintendent Lindsey Hall was stated as: “The Superintendent recommends the Board allow the Superintendent to utilize the firms of Miller, Tracy, Braun, Funk & Miller Ltd., Franczek Radelet or Kriha Law LLC at her discretion.”
This agenda item was part of the reorganization of the board with new members Meghan Hennesy, Ken Keefe and Colleen Schultz now seated, Jeremy Henrichs re-elected, and continuing board members Max McComb, Merle Giles and Lori Larson.
Hennesy questioned the wording of the recommendation — specifically that the board would be allowing the superintendent to seek legal counsel “at her discretion.”
“I’m unclear as to whether this wording means that we are designating the board’s decisionmaking power to the superintendent and, if so, I find that problematic,” she said. Hennesy said she sent Hall questions regarding the agenda item earlier in the day, some of which could be answered right away, but some of which are yet to be answered.
“I still have some pending questions with respect to how often we use these law firms, who’s involved in the meetings, how much money we’ve spent to date, how many interactions we’ve had to date,” Hennesy said. “I would feel much more informed and comfortable making the decision if I had some of those answers at my disposal.
“I don’t have any problem with using these firms in particular,” she added. “It’s just the language as ‘at the discretion of the superintendent’ that’s giving me pause because I feel like that could lead to the superintendent superseding the board’s discretionary power.
“The boards I’ve served on before, if there are key situations, the board will designate authority for a very specific decision to a board member but I’ve never seen decisionmaking authority designated to an employee. And so I have some pause with that particular language,” Hennesy said. “As a board member, I feel like it would be shirking my responsibility to somehow tantamount be giving my decisionmaking power with respect to legal designations over ... and this motion appears to me to do that.”
Hennesy said she would prefer that the motion approve the law firms named but not give the responsibility of when to utilize them to the superintendent, as she said she believes that is part of the board’s duties.
“I do make decisions to contact our legal counsel when guidance is needed,” Hall said. “There’s a variety of legal questions that come before us and any school district on a regular basis. Some of them are small, I guess, less significant questions, but without proper legal guidance those can grow into other issues.
“Other legal issues that we face are much larger, and I have kept the board informed of what those are. I’ve not heard any concerns back from previous board members about those,” she added. “There are times when that guidance is needed. And I think that I use sound judgment on when to call on these folks.”
Hall said she calls on behalf of the board when she does contact legal counsel.
Schultz asked if the superintendent could communicate with the board directly before contacting legal counsel, while Hennesy also asked about how frequently legal assistance is requested and how much money the district spends on legal advice. Board president McComb seemed to think it might not be practical for the superintendent to await all board members’ responses each time legal advice is needed.
“Sometimes she needs to act quickly,” he said. “This is something that occasionally Dr. Hall needs to do.”
Giles said the board counts on the superintendent to know what legal items to bring to board of education members and when. He compared her role to that of the CEO of a private company.
“Practically, these things that do come up ... we just learn over time what’s little and what’s not,” he said.
Schultz asked whether the agenda item could be reworded to say that board members be notified if the superintendent needs to contact legal counsel.
Hennesy said, “I guess my concern is that we should have policies and procedures that cover hopefully 99 percent of what we’re going to run into — that contacting (legal counsel) should be something that we do infrequently, and so that’s why I have those additional questions.
“I don’t want to tie the hands of the superintendent,” she added, “but I’m also not comfortable with turning over the decisionmaking power of the board and the discretion of the board to decisions that I would then be personally responsible for as a board member but I haven’t had any say. I’m just uncomfortable with the language.
“I think it warrants further discussion,” Hennesy said.
“My recommendation is that we approve it as it has been for now but we re-look at it if we want to after you have additional information,” McComb said. “Certainly, everything that we do as far as working relationship with the superintendent, what we expect as far as communication from her, is part of our ongoing relationship.”
Giles said, “I’m fine with it the way it is.” Henrichs weighed in, saying, “I would rather err on the side of contacting legal counsel than not.”
In the end, the board approved the agenda item as worded, with Hennesy and Schultz voting “nay” and the other five board members voting for the move.