School board attorney, Nancy Alfonso, recently informed school board members that her firm would no longer be able to serve the school board and would need to end its contract. Before passing on May 13, 2023, Nancy’s husband, Dennis Alfonso, served as the school board’s attorney since 2011. With this notification, the school board will need to seek a new attorney, ideally starting before the contract terminates at the end of October. Nancy Alfonso told school board members that she would be available to onboard the new board attorney.
On the agenda for the July 25 regular board meeting was an item to approve a job description for a school district attorney. This is separate from the school board attorney.
Board member Mark Johnson said he pulled the item from the consent agenda in light of the developments of Mrs. Alfonso and her firm’s contract. He moved to table the item until they first find a school board attorney since he feels that searching for and hiring both simultaneously would be too much at once and cause complications.
The motion to table failed 3-2, with school board member Shannon Rodriguez siding with Johnson. After a motion to approve the item was seconded, Johnson further stated, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to be advertising for two attorneys at the same time. I think we’ll run into problems. I’m not necessarily against having an attorney for the school district. I just think that the timing stinks. I don’t fault Mrs. Alfonso for her decision not to continue her contract. I think she’s very brave, and I admire her for what she’s been doing. I think, though, we should get what we need, which is, by statute, a school board attorney, before we entertain hiring one for the district. It’s going to be way too much at one time.”
The school district attorney position was discussed during the school board workshop earlier that afternoon. Johnson recapped, “A firm to represent the school board, not an in-house and an in-house attorney to represent the school district- I think that’s the direction we were heading this afternoon. That’s fine. It’s not conducive to do it at the same time. There’s a lot involved in both those areas of law.”
Superintendent Stratton stated that, to Johnson’s point, that’s all the more reason to move forward on both now. “It’s two very different things. We’re looking for an in-house attorney for staff. The board gave directions today that they want their board attorney to remain, such as in Nancy’s capacity and outside counsel that works for the board. Those are two different targets that we’re going after because one’s going to become your employee and the other we’re contracted with. So, I think we could move forward at the same time with both, and we do have the benefit of having Nancy here to October.”
Stratton explained the need for a school district attorney, stating, “There are so many legal decisions made in the day that should not be made by staff and myself. And we don’t have … unfettered access to a legal opinion in a very timely manner all the time… We have different areas. We have several different attorneys that we reach out to. Time and time again, we are bogged down with something, trying to move forward; typically, in our facilities and maintenance area, we’ll need a quick opinion with some kind of advice, and it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of staff always doing that.”
Stratton said he spoke with County Administrator Jeff Rogers about the school district attorney situation. Stratton stated, “Paraphrasing [Rogers], he thinks it’s crazy that we don’t [have a school district attorney], in his opinion, when he has four over there.”
Rogers remarked to Hernando Sun, “Proper legal advice, review of agreements, and policies is necessary for all organizations, especially those trusted with the use of tax dollars.”
Stratton continued, “So again, we are the largest employer in the county, hands down. And what I’m asking for, for the benefit of staff, and for the benefit of efficiency, and meeting the letter of the law, is to have an in-house staff attorney that can handle some of these things quickly. Never to usurp the board attorney. The board should always have its own attorney and always have that separation from the superintendent and the district, honestly.” Stratton stated that the school district attorney position would be funded by the general fund.
Board member Shannon Rodgriguez’s main concern is whether it’s spending the taxpayer’s money wisely. She pointed out that there will still be a need to hire outside legal counsel for specialty issues, as they do currently.
However, Stratton feels it could save taxpayers money by avoiding those expensive outside legal counsel fees in many situations. Those fees range from $250 to $300 per hour, he said. According to the District Based Administrator Placement Salary Range 2023-2024, the annual salary for a school district attorney would be $103,012-$118,465.
Board member Linda Prescott asked School board attorney Nancy Alfonso how long it took Pasco to hire an attorney recently. She said it took them about ten to 11 months to hire someone.
“So, that’s what makes me not want to postpone it,” said Prescott.
Again arguing to put their energy into focusing on hiring a school board attorney, Johnson added that if they are without a school board attorney, they will be unable to have a quasi-judicial hearing.
Nancy Alfonso explained that she reached out last week to give them time to begin to find a candidate as soon as possible. She said, “The assumption is that those ads will go out soon, and you’d have candidates applying and interviewing before the end of October.”
The motion to approve the job description for a school district attorney was approved 3-2, with Rodriguez and Johnson opposing.