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Newark school board attorney search delayed after attempt to ramp up hiring fails

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The Newark Board of Education will hear from an education law expert next month to better understand the function of an attorney for the nine-member school board, according to discussions during the first school board business meeting of the 2023-24 school year.

David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

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Newark school board members will not hire an attorney before the start of the academic year despite plans to ramp up the hiring process over the summer. 

Instead, the Newark Board of Education will hear from an education law expert next month to better understand the function of an attorney for the nine-member school board, according to discussions during the first school board business meeting of the year on Tuesday.

During the meeting, board president Asia Norton said she wants to ensure the board doesn’t do anything that would “jeopardize the district, whether it be intentionally or unintentionally.” She asked the district’s general counsel, Brenda Liss, for guidance in the search during a board committee discussion meeting prior to Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I still think that we are digesting what [a board attorney] actually means,” said Norton on Tuesday. “And so to bring in a third party that has familiarity in this area will assist us in framing what our expectations of this individual will provide us.”

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Tuesday’s discussion comes nearly eight months after the board passed a resolution to hire a separate attorney for the board after news of Superintendent Roger León’s contract renewal in January sparked criticism from community members and raised questions about the board’s legal authority. It also comes after board members raised concerns over a “drawn-out” hiring process in June the need to secure an attorney before the start of the school year, and the ongoing battle to release a long-awaited review of the cultural climate at Newark School of Global Studies in the wake of reported incidents of racial harassment at the school. 

In May, the board solicited proposals from interested law firms and in June, received 12 proposals. During a school board meeting in June, board members discussed creating an ad-hoc committee to evaluate candidates, review proposals, and conduct interviews before a decision was made in August. Since then, the board has not started its process of interviewing candidates. 

In response to Norton’s request, Liss suggested the board hear from David Rubin of The Busch Law Firm, a New Jersey attorney who’s practiced education law in the state since 1977, during the board’s Sept. 30 retreat meeting. The retreat had previously been scheduled for Aug. 19.

“He has done a number of presentations to board members and school attorneys,” said Liss, who also described Rubin as the “preeminent education attorney in the state of New Jersey, on all matters relating to public school districts.” 

Rubin represents a number of school districts as well as schools and is an expert on school board governance, Liss added. 

Norton also proposed the idea of selecting a firm that is already pre-authorized by the district to serve as the board’s legal counsel. The firms could serve as the board’s attorney since there is no conflict of interest according to the rules of attorney ethics, Liss said. 

“Those who are already representing the school district are not in an adverse relationship to the board of education and that’s part of what Mr. Rubin, I believe, we’ll be discussing,” Liss added. 

Board attorney is an ‘urgent matter,’ members say

Board member Crystal Williams did not agree that a district-authorized law firm could serve as the board’s attorney. During the meeting, Williams said hiring a lawyer for the board is “an urgent matter.” She added that a law firm approved by the district “cannot represent the nine-member board without that conflict there” or be able to provide “great legal advice without repercussions from the district.” 

“Our attorney is for us to go to, for me to call and say hey, this is what just happened. I don’t know. It seems a little gray and I need advice,” Williams said. 

Board member Murray-Thomas said there could be a possibility of a potential conflict of interest within the board of education. A board attorney “that is paid by the district may at some point, have different interests than the board members elected to serve that district,” Murray-Thomas said. 

She also pointed to the early years of Newark Public Schools before schools were racially integrated, and the state’s 25-year takeover of the district as reasons to protect the nine-member board for the future. 

“We have a history and a legacy of injustice and in order for that to be undone, there has to be processes and procedures in place to prevent that from ever happening again,” Murray-Thomas said. 

Vice president Dawn Haynes said she had “no problem listening to counsel Rubin” but did not understand why the board is considering listening to a presentation after June’s discussions about potentially interviewing candidates. 

She also mentioned her ongoing requests to make public the CREED strategies report, a review of the racial, cultural, and religious dynamics at Newark’s School of Global Studies, and the need for a board attorney to help understand why the report has not been released.  

In June, León said the report was meant to help the district design a strategy to tackle racial issues in city schools and was meant to serve as “an internal document for us to consider.” Board members have not received the report but were told they could read the report by setting up a time with the district to do so. 

“We’re still waiting for information that can ultimately either help our district and bring it out of the dark ages of racism and white supremacy and discrimination within our district or we can be stagnated in this same space,” Haynes added.

She would have rather had a discussion about the candidates who submitted proposals, Haynes said during the meeting. In response, Norton said she is treading lightly on the board attorney process because “the board is still learning about the process as we are creating the process.” 

Board members agreed to hear from Rubin but voted to do so before September’s retreat meeting. The board will select dates and issue notice of a special meeting in September, Norton said.  

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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