For the first time since 2015, the recently reorganized Harrisburg school board is fielding applicants for a new district solicitor.
A legal notice first published in the Patriot-News last week invites licensed attorneys to apply to represent the Harrisburg school district as general counsel, a job title used interchangeably with solicitor.
The district and the board currently receive legal guidance from Solicitor Samuel Cooper. Cooper was appointed as in-house legal counsel for the district and board in August 2015, after a motion to appoint former Harrisburg Authority board member James Ellison failed on a 4-4 vote, according to meeting minutes.
A review of public notice archives shows the district has not advertised for a new solicitor since then.
During his tenure with the district, Cooper has remained an employee of the Dilworth-Paxson legal firm and bills the district hourly for his services.
Board president Danielle Robinson said today that the board is not trying to oust Cooper, who is welcome to participate in the new bidding process. But she said that any new general counsel would ideally be hired as a district employee with a base salary.
Asked if Cooper would have to resign from Dilworth-Paxson to take a job with the district, Robinson said, “It would be up to him.”
Cooper did not respond to requests for comment today.
Robinson explained that since the solicitor is an appointed position, the board should issue a call for applicants every year. Board members have not done so in the past since they are satisfied with Cooper’s work, she said.
This year, however, the district is trying to find new cost-cutting measures after emerging from a difficult budget cycle, Robinson said. She hopes that hiring a salaried solicitor could reduce bills from out-sourced legal work.
“If we had an in-house solicitor with a base salary, we wouldn’t be putting out so much work [to outside firms],” Robinson said.
Robinson added that Cooper was trained as a bond lawyer before he joined the district. Though he’s learned about Pennsylvania school code on the job, Robinson also thinks the district could reduce its outsourced workload if it had an in-house expert in school law.
Robinson could not provide an approximate salary for the position, which would come out of the district’s existing legal budget.
Even though she does not expect the district to perform all of its legal work in-house, she estimates that hiring a salaried employee could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
The board approved payment of more than $31,000 in fees to Dilworth-Paxson in November, according to check resisters. While Cooper is the district’s primary counsel, old invoices show he is not the only attorney at his firm billing the district.
The board is not required to vote publicly to issue a Request for Qualifications (RFQ,) which must run in newspapers for three weeks. In an email dated Dec. 4, Robinson asked business manager Bilal Hasan to publicly post an RFQ that was sent to the board at a prior date.
Robinson’s request came just one day after a board reorganization meeting where she replaced Judd Pittman as board president. Board director Lola Lawson, who was appointed to the board in August, was named vice president.
The reshuffling was seen by some as a repudiation of Pittman, who has long called for the board to govern with more transparency and fidelity. Pittman also led the effort this spring to conduct a nationwide search for a new district superintendent, which was ultimately quashed by a 5-4 board vote in May.
In an email, Pittman told Robinson that the RFQ should move through the board’s human resources and budget and finance committees before being publicly posted.
“As with other important items over the last year and in consistency with goals established by the board, the RFQ for a solicitor should move through the committee structure,” Pittman said. “I am in full support of a competitive process but want to make sure we have all the data and evidence on services to have a clear understanding of the skills and services we would want in the in-house council.”
Pittman did not respond to requests for comment today.
Neither Pennsylvania school code nor Harrisburg school board policies say that advertisements for bids must move through board committees, though it is common practice for most board actions.
Robinson said today that the majority of the board agreed to issue the RFQ, even though they did formally vote on it.
Once the Dec. 21 deadline for bids passes, the board will review applicants and possibly issue a separate request for proposals (RFP) to those who meet their desired qualifications.
The board could also abandon the search process altogether, Robinson said.
“Right now, this is just a request for candidates,” Robinson said. “It’s not saying we’re replacing anyone.”