McAllen school board trustees have signaled that they’re not overly keen on an administrative proposal to consider adding an in-house legal counsel position to staff.
The board talked about the possibility at a workshop Monday, April 4, and did not have the option to vote.
The concept could, however, show up as an action item at a meeting down the line, but judging by Monday’s conversation, administrators will have some convincing to do if they hope to actually create the post at some point.
Having multiple attorneys is nothing new for school districts; most have a variety on hand, many of them specialists.
In addition to its general counsel — Atlas, Hall & Rodriguez — McAllen ISD works with four legal services providers; the district has paid out a little over $1.5 million in legal fees over the past five years.
Adding an in-house counselor would be more unorthodox. Only 32 districts in the state have one, and only one of those district’s is in Region One: Brownsville, which in many ways seemed to be the inspiration for administration’s in-house counsel idea.
The administration’s argument for bucking the trend of not having in-house counsel is simple. They say it’s efficient, both monetarily and temporarily.
“What we found with Brownsville is that they have general counsel and then they have in-house counsel who’s a lot like an assistant superintendent,” Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez told the board. “One salary, they don’t bill on hours and on the day to day, we would be able to walk across a hallway and ask a question immediately about the Texas Education Code…or if we have a Title IX question, or if we’re working on contracts.”
A legal question like that could take some three hours to get answered by general counsel, Gonzalez said.
“And, in looking at the numbers, we could also present some cost-savings,” he said.
One other advantage, Gonzalez said, would be proactive training sessions for district staff on policy performed by an actual attorney. He said the in-house attorney would work in conjunction with general counsel, ideally the staff attorney focusing on day-to-day issues and general counsel focusing on bigger cases.
Administration estimated the annual cost for in-house counsel at $175,000 a year: $131,000 to pay the attorney and $44,000 to pay a paralegal secretary.
The idea was met with a flurry of worry from the board.
“Are 32 school districts right and the other 1,000 wrong?” Trustee Danny Vela said, referencing how relatively uncommon in-house counsel is for Texas districts. Vela wondered what would happen if in-house counsel’s opinion differed from general counsel.
Trustee Debbie Crane-Aliseda expressed doubt over whether a jack of all trades staff attorney would actually prove cheaper for the district.
“So I don’t see the cost-savings,” she said. “I still see that we’re going to have to use general counsel, I still see that we’re going to have to use these specialized law firms for these special different areas of law that people are board-certified in. I mean, one person’s not going to be board-certified in all these different areas.”
Other trustees echoed that doubt.
To compound the issue, the in-house counsel conversation was only a portion of the board’s legal services discussion at the workshop. The board spent more time discussing general legal counsel services solicitation, services the district has to find in a relatively tight timeframe.
“Look, I like the fact that our board president and our superintendent and administration is looking outside the box,” Trustee Marco Suarez said. “I think it’s a great thing; I think the timing’s off because we’re going out for general counsel. Had we already had general counsel, they could be in this room discussing with us what we can do.”