NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - New Hanover County Schools is the only school district in our viewing area with an attorney on the payroll. Most school districts in North Carolina, even some of the largest ones, opt to contract with outside attorneys on an as-needed basis rather than hire an attorney to serve on their staff.
Newly elected New Hanover County School Board member Judy Justice says there’s a good reason most school boards outsource legal counsel. She wants her fellow board members to reconsider their current arrangement, in part because of conflicts of interest that can arise when an attorney is on staff.
Justice also says having an attorney in the room at all times can make school boards behave in a way that is not necessarily in the best interest of the students or the public.
“It changes your perspective and how you approach situations, especially dealing with kids,” Justice explained of relying too much on legal advice and what’s least likely to get the district sued. “To me, it almost stilts some of the dialogue … before we get to the point where you have to have ... a legal representative there.”
In November, Justice and three other political newcomers defeated several longstanding school board members in New Hanover County. Many voters said they were unhappy with the lack of transparency from previous board members, and felt they had mishandled a number of complaints involving inappropriate behavior between teachers and students.
Two notable examples in the months leading up to the election were the arrest of Isaac Bear Early College High School teacher Mike Kelly for sex crimes against students, and the arrest of Nicholas Oates. Oates served as a special education assistant at Myrtle Grove Middle School before resigning in 2017.
When Oates was arrested for statutory rape of a child in 2018, WECT learned he had been investigated during his time with New Hanover County Schools for sending sexually explicit text messages to a student.
In Kelly’s and Oates’ cases, parents complained that school administrators ignored warning signs until it was too late. While there are a variety of reasons the public was not warned sooner about disturbing behavior these teachers were allegedly involved in prior to their arrests, some parents said the school system’s desire to avoid potential lawsuits played a big role.
“How can you protect children when you’re busy protecting yourself?” Lynn Shoemaker, a parent and former New Hanover County Schools educator, asked about NHCS’ reliance on its attorney. She also suspects the attorney may be behind the tight-lipped behavior of the school board following these high-profile scandals involving students and teachers.
“He’s looking ahead and protecting the school board members and the superintendent and the deputy superintendent from their violations in the law, so he’s representing all of them," Shoemaker said. "Of course he wants them to say as little as possible so it’s not used against them down the road.”
Despite her concerns, Justice, along with every other school board member we talked to, spoke highly of Wayne Bullard, who has worked as New Hanover County Schools’ in-house attorney for years. Bullard joined the NHCS staff several years ago after previously working for the schools on a contract basis.
Justice says Bullard has done a good job in her short time with the school board but she thinks having any attorney in the building at all times creates issues.
Since Bullard is advising top administrators as well as the school board, conflicts of interest can arise if the board later has issues with the way one of those administrators did their job.
We reached out to Bullard and New Hanover County administrators for their thoughts on these concerns, and they said this was really up to the school board and questions were best directed to board members. At least two school board members oppose the idea of dropping their in-house counsel arrangement.
Jeanette Nichols points out that having an attorney on staff, rather than paying an attorney on an hourly basis, saves the district a lot of money. The district paid Bullard a salary of $106,320 last year.
By comparison, Brunswick County Schools spends about $90,000 a year paying an outside law firm an hourly rate on an as-needed basis. In Pender County, the district spent a whopping $290,000 on legal fees last year with outside law firms. It is unclear if that is more than Pender County Schools typically spends, but a district spokesman mentioned that a requested athletics investigation at Topsail High School, several major construction projects, complying with federal regulations for exceptional students, and requests by the media for communication records drove up 2018 legal expenses.
Nichols says Bullard does everything from reviewing building contracts to revising policy manuals and advising the board during disciplinary hearings with students. She also notes having an attorney working exclusively for NHCS has eliminated scheduling conflicts that often arose when they were working with attorneys juggling multiple clients.
Bill Rivenbark said with all the things that can go wrong each day with a school district the size of New Hanover’s, the board needed an attorney who is readily available to consult and keep schools out of trouble.
“Someone’s always looking to sue you,” Rivenbark explained. “There’s folks who make a living suing people. It’s kind of nice to have somebody to talk to.”
Rivenbark added that with the various personnel laws, student privacy laws, and public records laws, legal considerations are often part of the board’s job, and he welcomes having an attorney in the room. He rebuffed concerns that having an attorney’s regular counsel could make him respond in an overly cautious or defensive manner, rather than acting in the best interest of the students.
“If it’s advice then that’s all it is. We ultimately can do what we want to but we don’t want to break the law,” Rivenbark said of his position.
While Justice disagrees with having an in-house school board attorney, and Rivenbark and Nichols seem firmly in the other camp, the rest of the school board members seemed more flexible on the issue.
Lisa Estep and David Wortman said they liked having Bullard on staff and consulted with him regularly but were willing to discuss the best attorney arrangement moving forward now that a new board has been sworn in.
Stefanie Adams said she felt like she was too new in her role on the school board to voice a firm opinion, but said she didn’t think having an attorney in the room would change her position on an issue she felt strongly about. Fellow newcomer Nelson Beaulieu said he didn’t realize NHCS having an attorney on staff was different than most districts. He said he would be willing to discuss changing the arrangement if it came up, but wasn’t convinced it was necessary.
“Having an attorney in the room does not affect my decision one way or another. In terms of making me over-cautious or focused on legality, that’s always a good thing to do," Beaulieu said. "Stay within the confines of the law, but I am 100 percent focused on doing what is best for NHCS students.”