A Harrisburg school board meeting devolved into a shouting match on Monday night, marked by a disagreement over the hiring of an in-house solicitor for the district.
During a discussion on fiscal matters, board President Danielle Robinson brought up the board’s desire to hire an in-house solicitor, framing the issue as a way to save money.
According to Robinson, the district currently works with some four different law firms and pays $800,000 to $1 million a year in legal fees.
“In the next three years, we’re going to be broke as a district,” Robinson said. “We’re going to be bankrupt as a district. This is a way for us to possibly save some money.”
The move was not, she said, a criticism of the board’s current Solicitor Samuel Cooper, who works for an outside firm, Philadelphia-based Dilworth Paxon.
Robinson said the district had two applicants and that she worked with Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, as well as the district’s business manager and HR director, to have an initial discussion with the two candidates. The board then met with the two applicants and asked questions of them.
Although Robinson did not publicly confirm who the candidates were, she was questioned if one was Harrisburg attorney James Ellison, a former school board solicitor and long-time political player in the city.
“However anyone on the outside feels about these two applicants does not matter to me,” Robinson said. “The decision lies with this board. We have to become a strong board to make our own decisions.”
The district’s state-appointed Chief Recovery Officer Janet Samuels then expressed her frustration that the process the board used — a request for qualifications advertised in a local newspaper— was not adequate. She said that the district needed to seek out candidates from other firms experienced in representing school districts.
Robinson then accused Samuels of trying to slander a candidate.
“As the chief recovery officer, your job is to make sure we’re in line with the recovery plan, not to tell these board members what to do and who to vote for,” Robinson said.
After a verbal sparring match between Robinson and Samuels, Cooper appeal for calm. Cooper, who would likely need to stay involved to finish up ongoing legal work, asked everyone to maintain respect and civility.
“Conduct yourself with decorum and do the business at hand,” he said. “If you want respect from our citizens sitting here who spend their time coming here thanklessly that aren’t getting paid for it either, show them some respect too.”
Eventually, the board decided to table the vote. The issue was tabled with no specific date, meaning, Robinson said, that it could come up during the next public voting meeting or at the board’s next regularly scheduled meeting in April. If board members decide to accept new bids for solicitors, they can look at other candidates. If not, they will move forward with the two candidates they have, Robinson said.
For her part, Samuels said she was not surprised by Robinson’s reaction. She said that she gave the board information on possible solicitors in the Harrisburg area who were well-versed in education law, as well as information on how to appropriately select a solicitor. She said she wants to focus on the “great things” that can happen with the district instead of any “baggage” that comes with hiring a particular firm.
“There should be a standard of excellence in place in this district, whether it’s educating children or selecting a board solicitor,” she said.