Bradley County School Board member Chris Turner told board members he has concerns that board attorney Charles Cagle has some conflicts of interest in representing the board.
He also said the contract for the board attorney has not been reviewed for 14 years.
Mr. Turner called to the board’s attention what he believes to be several problematic relationships that attorney Cagle has with several lobbyist groups. Attorney Cagle, chairman of the education law practice group for Lewis Thomason, King, and Waldrop law firm, represents Bradley County schools, along with about 70 other school districts.
He is also a lobbyist for several education-based special interest groups, which Mr. Turner feels come into direct conflict with his representation of the Bradley County school system.
Mr. Turner said, “In the business world we have things called conflicts of interest. I’m confident that other members of the board who work for business don’t have attorneys who represent their competitors. We are one big team in education, however we do have competing interests. We do have different positions and I want to outline some of those that I believe are conflicts of interest.”
Mr. Turner listed several lobbying and education reform groups that attorney Cagle works for. These include, but are not limited to, Tennessee SCORE (State Collaborative on Reform of Education), Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), and The Association of Independent and Municipal Schools (AIMS).
Mr. Turner said the law firm declined to advise the board concerning the liquor by the drink tax revenue debate, as well as the fact that Mr. Cagle is also a registered lobbyist for Pearson Education, the education publishing and assessment service that he said landed the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing contract without having to contend with any competing bids.
Mr. Turner also stated that Tennessee state law dictates that competitive bidding is required in the selection of the new assessment test administrators. He said, “Although several companies inquired about the contract, Pearson was the only bidder. Our board attorney represents as a paid lobbyist, an organization that solely is the only bidder for the single largest consortium in public education.”
He said attorney Cagle’s work with AIMS was the straw that broke his back with the alleged conflict of interest. He said, “The districts that are part of the Association of Independent and Municipal Schools include the city of Cleveland and the attorney and lobbyist is Mr. Chuck Cagle. Mr. Cagle’s firm declined to offer an opinion on the liquor by the drink tax distribution to Bradley County Schools. He cited conflict of interest..”
Mr. Turner also said that this is not a matter of professional competency, but rather a breach of contract due to many conflicts of interest.
Attorney Chris McCarty of Lewis, Thomason, King, and Krieg, who was present to speak on behalf of the firm, said that the firm represents about 70 school systems statewide and that there are bound to be conflicts of interest. Attorney McCarty said also that it would be unethical of them not to declare when such conflicts arise. He said that the firm is just too big for these situations to not arise, but that the size of the firm also provides its clients with a wide breadth of expertise, resources, and experience. Attorney McCarty also said that the firm handles day to day legal problems for the school system and out of thousands of issues there has only been one conflict of interest.
Mr. Turner moved that the board hire new legal representation, rejecting the firm’s too big argument. Board member Troy Weathers disagreed with Mr. Turner. He said, “It’s not Mr. Cagle’s fault that they had one bidder.”
Mr. Weathers also said that the board uses different attorneys for different situations all the time, and he felt that the board should not act on this until the board members have been better informed on the situation. Board member Nicholas Lillios said that it does make good business sense to review the contract for legal service, as it should be done more frequently. After some debate the board moved to review the legal contracts next month after the entire board has had time to more thoroughly research the situation.
The board also heard an update on the school system's current construction updates from Angie Lyon, of the Kaatz, Binkley, Jones, and Morris architecture firm. This led directly to a debate over the condition of the Bradley County School’s budget and infrastructure. Board member Lillios said that he would not approve a budget that did not consider the infrastructure issues by laying out a plan for funding future capital projects. Several of the school systems buildings are about 50 years old and are going to need to be replaced or will be in need of serious repair soon.
Board member Charlie Rose said, “We have a crisis on our hands, as far as our buildings go.”
The crux of the debate lies in just how these infrastructure projects should be funded. Board member Lillios again suggested some serious budget cuts, while Mr. Turner raised question about how the school system's money is being spent and said that the taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going. Board member Weathers expressed concerns over budget cuts. He said, “We have teachers and principals out here and they know the game, and they know that when you’re talking about cuts. You’re talking about cuts, and we didn’t get where we are today with our test scores and graduation rates with cuts. We’re doing a lot of things right,” said Weathers.
Mr. Turner suggested that the board more closely follow the state’s Basic Education Program or BEP. He further requested that the system’s business office produce a line by line comparison of the BEP and the system's proposed budget.
Bradley County business manager Rick Smith said that not only would this be labor intensive and time consuming, but that the data would not be very practical or helpful. Director of Schools Johnny McDaniel echoed this sentiment, saying that the BEP is merely a guideline that determines how funding is generated and allocated. The board voted in favor of detailing the budget. The board also approved the Federal Programs Consolidated Budget and agreed to use the TSBA-approved model in order to complete Director McDaniel’s annual performance evaluation.