GREEN COVE SPRINGS – A recent discussion about legal services for the Clay County School Board has brought to the surface old wounds that seemingly haven’t yet healed among board members.
During the Nov. 26 agenda workshop with Superintendent Addison Davis in Green Cove Springs, school board member Janice Kerekes threw out the idea of re-hiring former School Board Attorney Bruce Bickner, who resigned in the fall of 2013 after being threatened with termination by then-Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr.
Last week’s discussion is the second on the topic since school board Attorney David D’Agata penned a resignation letter saying Dec. 21 would be his last day. Since the letter, the school board has worked to develop a plan on how to fill the legal void D’Agata will leave behind.
“I’d like us to reach out to Mr. Bickner, who knows school board law, who was the school board attorney here for 14-plus years, who when we interviewed, had an application with the most experience,” Kerekes said.
School board chair Carol Studdard – who was voted in as chairman Dec. 20 – agreed with Kerekes and said Bickner’s exit was handled unfairly.
“What was done to Mr. Bickner...was almost inhumane,” Studdard said. “He was a good attorney and he did nothing wrong; he just happened to have a conflict with the Superintendent [Charlie Van Zant Jr.].”
Since D’Agata’s announcement, the board has grappled with hiring an attorney to handle board business and a separate attorney or contracted law firm to handle all other district legal matters.
Kerekes suggested re-hiring Bickner would save time and would be a turnkey process.
“I think we should offer Mr. Bickner the contract that he had,” Kerekes said. “$154,000 and it was a three-year contract.”
While Studdard seemed to agree that Bickner should be offered the job once more, she disagreed with the salary Kerekes recommended. Studdard said nobody should make more than the Superintendent.
Newly-elected member, Tina Bullock, said she preferred to hire a single attorney for the school board as she feels it is more personal and serves the board better to do so. She did not comment on the prospect of Bickner, however.
School board member Ashley Gilhousen said that above everything, she wants the board to work together as a cohesive unit. She also said she sees the potential hiring of Bickner as divisive and, instead recommedned recommended hiring an outside firm.
“Like we said, there’s a lot of water under the bridge, so in my humble opinion, I think hiring an outside firm removes some of that opportunity for accusations of bias or, ‘someone’s got his ear and someone doesn’t’,” Gilhousen said. “It takes the opportunity for even the appearance of impropriety away and it levels the playing field so nobody feels like they’re being mistreated and so nobody feels like they’re not getting the same fair shake as anyone else and that’s all I’m asking for is fairness.”
School board member Mary Bolla said she would like to see the board put out a bid for both attorneys and law firms to handle the board’s legal services.
D’Agata reiterated his stance and said both the Superintendent and his staff, and the school board, should have full-time legal counsel at their disposal. He said this could be met with solo attorneys or law firms, but that regardless of which route the parties go, the hired legal service should be full-time.
When D’Agata originally filed his letter of resignation, it was because he had taken a job with the Florida Department of Education. Now, however, he has declined that job and will go into practice civil litigation as a partner in the Jacksonville office of Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer. Because this position will see him remaining nearby in Jacksonville, and not hundreds of miles away in Tallahassee, which is where the DOE job would have taken him, D’Agata said he can provide some cushion support to the school board following his official departure on Dec. 21.
Because this was a school board agenda workshop, and not a regular school board meeting, the board was not able to make any official motion. Further discussion surrounding the board’s legal service support after D’Agata leaves will take place during the Dec. 6 regular school board meeting.