The Volusia County School Board this week approved a new three-year contract for longtime board attorney Ted Doran, just a week before its expiration.
The schedule put pressure on board members to make a decision or lose legal counsel at their Tuesday meeting, though some board members were keen to explore other options.
The new contract included a 25 percent pay increase for the attorney who has represented the school council since 2002.
Originally presented with a five-year extension contract, the board members spent more than an hour discussing whether that length of contract made sense and whether they should consider soliciting offers from other lawyers for the same services.
“I think Mr. Doran has been our lawyer for the school board for a long time and I think it would be interesting to go on one (inquiry),” said board member Carl Persis. “I’m not saying that after we do that we won’t come back and hire Mr. Doran right away, but I think it’s the right time to see who else is out there.”
Other board members disagreed, or at least did not want to begin this process immediately.
After Persis’ application for a one-year contract failed, the board members voted 4: 1 to a three-year contract, with Persis voting no.
A raise for Doran
The contract increases Doran’s hourly rate from $ 195 to $ 245 per hour – a little more than a 25% increase.
Linda Cuthbert, a longtime board member and chairman, said Doran hadn’t received a raise in 12 years. He provided the board with a consumer price index that suggested his price should actually be $ 269 and stated that he routinely charges retail customers more than $ 400 an hour.
More: Read the contract here
“I can tell you this is very fair,” said board member Ruben Colon after researching other board attorneys’ contracts.
In fiscal 2016-2017, Doran received $ 41,500 for serving as a board attorney. In the next fiscal year it was $ 54,500. And the following year it was $ 60,100. Payment for 2019-2020 was not available at the time of publication. And last fiscal year, he received around $ 170,000, said Kevin Pendley, general counsel for the school district, on Tuesday.
Last fiscal year, Doran and his company received a total of between $ 400,000 and $ 450,000 for working with the school district (final numbers are not yet available). The majority is dedicated to other legal services that they have provided to the district. The district includes six to eight outside law firms for various legal services and specializations.
Doran’s current contract was signed in 2016 for a term of five years. It expires on June 30th. Cuthbert explained that similar to the superintendent’s performance appraisal, the routine business of appraising Doran’s contract disappeared from the board’s radar during the pandemic.
The contract is between the school management and Doran’s law firm or “any successor law firm” of which Doran is a member. The contract does not specify any amount of money that Doran would be entitled to in the event of early termination, and provides that it can be terminated for cause.
Much of the discussion revolved around finding other applicants. But most of the board members were not ready for that.
“If there’s an attorney for Volusia County Schools, it must be Mr. Doran,” said Cuthbert. She pointed to times when he went to state lawmakers on behalf of the district or sued the state on matters that were important to them. “I don’t think Mr. Doran did anything wrong, inappropriately, or illegally of us to fire him in this regard. He has served this district quite well over the past few years. “
Other board members were unwilling to make a decision about a search and wanted more time to think about it.
Doran pointed out that, in his opinion, no one would apply for the position anymore.
“We’re not talking about personal injury attorneys here – there are 10 million out there,” he said. “You could advertise a school board attorney and the number of attorneys that would apply who have any experience? Zero … there is only one client. There is only one school board. There is only one institution for educational law. “
He also pointed out that he has the institutional knowledge for the job and that it would be difficult to get a lawyer from outside of Volusia County as it is technically a part-time job.
From 2013: Law firms challenge Doran to become an attorney for the school board
From 2013: School board attorney and city council defend themselves against competing law firms
In 2013, local law firms Smith Hood Bigman and Cobb Cole proposed representing the school district for a flat fee and doing all of its legal services in-house, rather than outsourcing some specialty practice to other law firms, as the district still does. They were ultimately unsuccessful.
The board members felt under pressure at their meeting this week to make a decision as Doran’s contract was due to expire next week. The subject of Doran’s contract was posted on the agenda but not discussed in previous meetings. There was no time to start a search, even if they wanted to.
“I feel like we’re being forced to do something,” said Persis. “Let’s not feel like we’re being held hostage and making a bad decision.”
Cuthbert and Colon both pointed out that the discussion should have started a year ago. Colon even went so far as to suggest submitting the subject in full, but Cuthbert pointed out that they would have to make a decision before their meeting ended.
“Let’s face it, we weren’t ready to look into it last August, September or even October,” said board member Jamie Haynes. “We were dealing with COVID.”
The school board can only hire, supervise and manage two employees: the school principal and the board attorney. The superintendent and district staff are not responsible for the attorney’s contract. Board members expressed frustration at the timing of the discussion and Board Chairman Cuthbert apologized for not noticing when Doran’s contract was expiring. The board of directors would be responsible for conducting a search or entering into a contract with a company to facilitate this.
“With a week’s notice, I don’t know if there’s much we can do,” said Colon.