Tips on Hiring a School Board Attorney

By Naomi Dillon

Of the 40 years Sam Harben has been a school attorney, he spent eight representing a rural Georgia district. While there, he successfully kept the board out of any significant legal disputes, despite the resolve of one particular member.

“He had a social agenda he firmly believed in,” Harben says of the board member. “He was very conservative.”

But apparently the board member was wise enough to heed sound legal advice, even if it ran contrary to some of his own ideas about education. Such was not the case in Dover, Pa., where a costly debacle erupted in the fall of 2004 when the school board voted to alter its science curriculum and require administrators to recite a four-paragraph prelude to all units that discussed evolution.

The prelude stated that Darwin’s theory of evolution “is not a fact” and said intelligent design is “an explanation of the origin of life.” Parents were outraged, and joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit known as Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District.

The lawsuit received national attention. What did not was the number of warnings that preceded the board’s decision. Most came from the district’s lawyer, who resigned when it became clear his words were falling on deaf ears.

Dover ultimately lost the lawsuit, shelling out more than $1 million in legal fees and damages, and none of the board members who voted for the change were reelected. It’s a cautionary tale of what can happen when a school board ignores the advice of its attorney.

“A good litigator’s goal is to keep districts out of court,” says Harben, who notes that a school attorney must be able to spot potential legal trouble before it occurs.

Hiring a knowledgeable attorney with a strong network can save your district a lot of money and a lot of embarrassment. But, as Dover illustrates, what good is professional advice if it’s never heeded?

Fortunately we’re here to help, by providing tips and insight to guide you in hiring the perfect attorney.

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