By Catharin Shepard • Editor • After failed motions in two separate meetings, the Hoke County Board of Education voted 3-2 last Thursday to hire the Poyner Spruill law firm to be the board’s new legal counsel.
At the board’s regularly scheduled workshop meeting last Tuesday evening, the school board came close to hiring a new law firm without having interviewed the candidates, two days before those interviews were set to take place. Instead, a 3-2 vote at the workshop meeting saw the board wait until after the interviews to make a decision. The school board interviewed the two law firms and voted to hire Poyner Spruill.
Initially the matter was placed at the end of the board’s August 22 workshop meeting as a separate item, not listed under action items or administration/information items. After the school board returned from a closed session, the board members began discussing the selection of a law firm.
Originally three firms had responded to the district’s request, but the Vogel Law Firm of Charlotte dropped out of the running, leaving the Charleston Group and Poyner Spruill as the two options, officials said.
The Charleston Group is a full-service law firm led by R. Jonathan Charleston and is based out of Fayetteville. The firm has more than 25 years of experience in representing public entities in a variety of matters, including capital finance, municipal law and government and regulatory practice. The Charleston Group serves as legal counsel for the Hoke County Department of Social Services.
The Poyner Spruill Education Law Practice Group was founded in 1986 and has about 90 attorneys with offices in Charlotte, Raleigh, Rocky Mount and Southern Pines. The firm represents clients throughout the United States. Poyner Spruill Education Law Practice Group currently represents multiple county education boards, including Pamlico County, Pender County, Wilson County, Rockingham County and a number of others.
During the workshop meeting, Board Vice Chair Catherine Blue said she looked into the candidates and made a motion to discuss and hire the Charleston Group.
“I make that motion based on a lot of issues that’s going on in the county. Our goal and drive is for the children, the parents and the community, and we yet have had that opportunity to do the things that we need to do going forward. I did research of the two law firms and I think they would represent us really well,” Blue said.
The motion did not receive a second. During discussion, board member Keisha Gill said that she had looked into the candidates, and found that the Charleston Group did not have experience serving as school board attorneys.
“I don’t agree with that because first of all, he’s a criminal attorney and we need somebody that is good with school board laws as well as EC (Exceptional Children), and I’m not sure, I did my research and I do know that attorney because they’re also the attorney for DSS (Hoke County Department of Social Services). I understand what you said, Mrs. Blue, but we need to make sure that we are operating in excellence, because we don’t want to just put somebody in there because of us knowing them, we need to know their work ethics,” Gill said. “School board, we need somebody that operates with school boards. If he was a school board attorney – I’m confused because he’s not a school board attorney for Cumberland, Scotland, Moore, none of the surrounding counties, but we’re going to bring somebody as a criminal attorney to represent the school board, and he’s not a school board attorney? And we also need somebody that knows the EC laws too? So I’m just not in agreement with that.
Board member Rosa McAllister-McRae said she would also prefer a firm with school board experience.
“We need someone that knows school law, that knows the building aspect of it, the EC aspect of it, and all of the policies. I understand that they probably could learn, but right now we’ve got three new board members, right, and then we’re going to have a new attorney, and then we’re going to have a new superintendent, we’re going to have a new HR person, we’re going to have a new auditing person. It’s too much. I think we need an attorney with some experience, like Keisha said.”
McAllister-McRae noted that the Charleston Group turned their application in July 19, after the response deadline of July 7, and the board received the application July 25.
Blue said that the package from the Charleston Group stated that the lawyers do research laws that affect public schools.
“I don’t want to say one is better than the other, but I think at this point they would be the best group to represent this county going forward,” she said.
“Why?” McAllister-McRae said.
Blue said that even though the board’s former attorneys, Tharrington Smith, provided a lawyer experienced in EC law, “When we got here as new board members, the EC department was messed up.”
“My pushback is, I feel like they have not represented us as well as they could,” Blue said.
“They didn’t work for EC, they just specialize in EC,” McAllister-McRae said. “…The director of EC was supposed to take care of EC.”
After further back and forth, board member Ruben Castellon spoke up to question why the board was considering hiring a law firm before interviewing them. The workshop meeting was Tuesday, and the interviews were scheduled for Thursday. Castellon said he “didn’t see the harm in waiting one more day,” and that he wanted to be able to see the candidates while asking them questions.
“I’ve got to say, I’ve done a lot of praying about this and I don’t think there’s any harm, right now, based on everything that’s going on, in interviewing both law firms. If it’s the Charleston Group that’s the most qualified, we go with them. We’re talking about literally just one day more, I would feel, myself, more comfortable. We haven’t even met these people, at least I haven’t,” Castellon said.
Castellon made a motion to table the matter and wait until after the interviews. McAllister-McRae seconded the motion, and she, Castellon and Gill voted in favor of it. The board adjourned the workshop meeting.
Interviews and vote
The board members heard presentations Thursday from both Poyner Spruill and the Charleston Group, and asked representatives from both firms a list of questions before deliberating on the new hire.
Poyner Spruill representatives said the firm has over 100 lawyers with multiple offices in North Carolina, including one in Southern Pines, and specializes in education law.
“We like to be incredibly responsive to our boards. We know it’s important that decisions are made in a timely manner, so we like to be prompt, we like to be cost-effective, and solution-oriented,” one of the Poyner Spruill representatives said. “How do we practically apply the laws that are constantly changing in the school environment. Again, we have access to people who are experts in construction law. We have a litigation team if we end up in litigation with someone, and they’re going to be charging our rates, so our reduced rates for public schools…we’re pretty much going to be available 24/7.”
Charleston Group founder Jonathan Charleston told the board that his law firm has worked with many public entities and is familiar with many areas of law applicable to a school district.
“Our firm has been in existence since 2002, we represented large companies, small companies across the country. I think we’ve had a tremendous amount of success representing those companies,” Charleston said. “…We have developed a reputation over the years of doing great work, very efficiently, for the folks that we represent, whether large automobile manufacturers, large banks, developers, public entities whether it’s housing authorities, human services, agencies across North Carolina and South Carolina…we do a good job for our clients because the first thing we try to understand is, what is the number one priority for that client?”
Charleston went on to say that if the school board solely wanted a law firm with experience in representing school boards, the Charleston Group might not be the one they should hire.
“I want to come out of the gate and say to you that, if the sole criteria is that you can say you’ve represented a school board, then what I would say to you is, we’re not your folks,” he said.
After interviewing both law firms, the board members went into deliberation. The discussions took place in open session.
Blue and Southerland spoke in support of hiring the Charleston Group. Southerland said she wanted a firm that “will fight for us.” She referenced a situation Charleston spoke of where the law firm proved helpful in an internal investigation.
“I want to go with a firm that I know will fight for us, that will fight for what’s right. I do know, not really the story, but what happened between the two county organizations that he was speaking about, and he fought for them and it turned things around. I don’t want to be here all night arguing about, we should choose a law firm with experience, because we’ve seen what experiences do for us, what it’s done for us, and what it’s still doing for us,” Southerland said. The board chair was referencing the board’s former legal representation Tharrington Smith, and the possibility of an embezzlement probe currently looming over the school district.
Gill spoke up in an exchange with Southerland.
“I understand what you’re saying, but you can’t compare other people with what they did,” she said.
“Who, what other people?” Southerland said.
“You can’t compare Tharrington with the selection we’re getting ready to make now,” Gill said.
“You can’t compare the Charleston Group either,” Southerland said.
After further back-and-forth among board members, Blue made a motion to hire the Charleston Group as the school board legal counsel. The motion did not receive a second and died.
McAllister-McRae made a motion to hire Poyner Spruill. The motion received a second from Gill and went to a vote. Castellon, Gill and McAllister-McRae voted in favor, and Southerland and Blue voted against the motion. The vote carried 3-2.
The board adjourned the meeting.