By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For that sum, the private lawyers are available to consult with school board members, to review and revise all DISD policies, and to represent the district in court and administrative hearings. (Specifically excluded from the contract are two biggies: tax matters and workers compensation cases.)
Schwartz & Eichelbaum also agreed to keep two lawyers officing full-time on DISD premises. The contract allows those two attorneys to devote only de minimis (Latin for "trifling") time to work other than DISD's.
Yet Bertha Bailey-Whatley, one of the attorneys supposedly assigned to DISD, has substantial responsibilities providing legal services to the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District. She has an office at Wilmer-Hutchins, and when you call that district and ask for the lawyer, the operator sends the call to Bailey-Whatley's extension.
Jerry Brown, the superintendent at Wilmer-Hutchins, says that Bailey-Whatley regularly works at least half-time for his district. The Wilmer-Hutchins district pays Schwartz & Eichelbaum roughly $120,000 a year for providing the services.
There's certainly nothing wrong with Bailey-Whatley working at Wilmer-Hutchins. The problem is that in 1993, Leonard Schwartz told the DISD board that his firm needed about $8,000 more a month so he could hire another attorney--Bailey-Whatley--to work on DISD matters.
Schwartz told the school board back then that the district's legal workload was growing, primarily because of persistent litigation filed by DISD gadflies Rick Finlan and Don Venable.
"This case needs someone full time," Schwartz told board members. Schwartz also maintained that it would be far more expensive for the district to hire another law firm to handle the Finlan-Venable litigation.
The board was persuaded, and agreed to increase Schwartz & Eichelbaum's contract by about $8,000 a month to accommodate an additional lawyer.
Since then, however, the school district has indeed hired another outside firm to pursue the Finlan-Venable litigation, paying it some $750,000 in fees last year, according to Eichelbaum. But DISD is still paying Schwartz & Eichelbaum the $8,000 a month that it requested specifically to deal with the Finlan-Venable litigation.
While there is no indication that the law firm isn't earning its keep, the situation raises troubling questions about whether the school board keeps track of how it is spending taxpayer money.
Eichelbaum argues that DISD is still getting its money's worth. "It may sound like a lot of money," he says. "But it's a good deal."
Specifically, Eichelbaum says, Bailey-Whatley can perform the equivalent of two jobs because she works a lot more than 40 hours a week. Bailey-Whatley is at DISD a majority of her time, he says, although that argument doesn't match the observations of Wilmer-Hutchins' superintendent.
The issue boils down to the difference between what the firm promised the district and the service DISD is actually receiving. When it approved the increase in Schwartz & Eichelbaum's contract, the DISD board was told it was paying for a full-time lawyer. Why is that lawyer also working part-time for another school district?
Eichelbaum's explanation? "I guess the question is, What do you call full time?" he says.
JUGGLING THE BOOKS
The elementary school students of DISD need new social studies books, and the district is ready to buy about 78,000 of them. But a messy lawsuit is holding up the process, borne of an alleged conflict of interest involving school board member Yvonne Ewell.
Ewell has been accused of having ulterior motives when she stepped in to divert part of the $2.4 million social studies book contract to publishing powerhouse McMillan/McGraw Hill. It seems that Ewell's former campaign manager, Robert Price, is married to a McMillan consultant.
Another book company--Harcourt Brace--is suing to block the deal. Before Ewell interfered, DISD's own textbook selection process had determined that Harcourt Brace should receive the contract.
Harcourt Brace has now obtained a temporary injunction blocking DISD from buying McMillan's books. Harcourt is arguing that the district violated it own policies by allowing Ewell to steer business to McMillan.
The textbook tussle is a classic example of the DISD culture. Most outsiders can see that there is at least an appearance of conflict in Ewell's efforts to award a contract to McMillan. But Ewell absolutely denies the existence of a conflict, and sounds offended that anyone is even questioning her about it.
"I don't have a conflict of interest," she says. "Bob Price was my campaign manager. Bob doesn't owe me anything. I don't owe McMillan [anything]. The McMillan book was by far the better [book]. But I don't need to tell you my preference, because that is not the issue."
That is exactly the issue, say Harcourt Brace lawyers. In its lawsuit, the company argues that Ewell should have been required to abstain from voting on the book contract, and should not have been involved in any decisions regarding McMillan. "Had she abstained, the board would have reached a different decision regarding the selection of a...social studies textbook," the company's petition argues.
School board policy states that, as a general rule, board members who are uncertain about a potential conflict should seek a ruling from the district's lawyers. Outside DISD counsel Dennis Eichelbaum says he never received any such request from Ewell. But Eichelbaum says he believes there is no conflict because Price was Ewell's campaign manager in 1995, a full two years before the textbook decision.