Law firm drops DeKalb School Board as client

A law firm that handles day-to-day legal issues for the DeKalb County School District will end its multimillion-dollar contract as general counsel.

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, which has represented DeKalb since 2009, will continue to do so until the system finds new representation. DeKalb, meanwhile, will study how other school systems structure their legal operations before proceeding with a replacement.

Sutherland and school board Chairman Eugene Walker issued a statement Wednesday that said the firm understood “the current fiscal challenges facing the school system” and approached the board to suggest “we work together to find another solution for its legal needs.”

Walker said in an interview that Sutherland attorneys announced their firm’s decision at a Nov. 7 meeting with him, Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson and board vice chair Tom Bowen. Walker said no one at the meeting asked Sutherland to elaborate.

School system spokesman Jeff Dickerson said the Sutherland contract is for $2.5 million to $3 million a year.

Walker called that a “bargain,” but said he believes it’s “a bargain they can no longer afford to give us.”

The announcement comes amidst an investigation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which has been looking into allegations of school board financial mismanagement and micromanagement. Mark Elgart, president and chief executive officer of SACS parent company AdvancEd, said in August that the board’s legal fees were a focus of the probe.

Records show the school board routinely went over budget on legal fees, Elgart said. DeKalb employs two firms for day-to-day work — Sutherland and Alexander & Associates.

“One of the problems is the board has two law firms on retainer because they couldn’t agree on one,” Elgart said at the time. “It is highly irregular for a school system to have two law firms doing the work of one.”

Walker said the board will study other school systems before deciding whether to hire another law firm or instead hire staff attorneys to do the work in-house.

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