COLUMBUS — In another lively confrontation Monday night with the Muscogee County school board, Columbus attorney Frank Myers made a reference to John Wells's bad grammar that provoked the District 2 representative to interject, "You are really tacky, Frank Myers!"
Myers at the time was referring to board members' reaction to his criticizing them for the board's exclusive no-bid contract with Columbus law firm Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild. He needled Wells and District 3 representative Athavia Senior for the improper grammar they used in recent news interviews.
"The reaction to the criticism leveled last month from some of you board members was somewhat bizarre," Myers told the board while speaking on its public agenda. "Two of you who were the most critical of citizen intervention, Ms. Senior and Mr. Wells -- bad grammar aside -- seemed to be saying, 'This is our school board, and you should butt out.' But I've got some news for both of you, and let me put this in words you will understand: This ain't your school board."
Board chairman Rob Varner interrupted, telling Myers he was being disrespectful, but it was hard to hear what Varner said with Wells shouting, "You are really tacky, Frank Myers! Just tacky!"
Varner continued, saying Myers was entitled to his five minutes on the public agenda, but, "to show that level of disrespect to a board member or board members is uncalled for, and I'll shut the time off if you keep it up."
Myers countered that he "didn't know there was a rule against telling the truth," then continued with a litany of examples he said showed the board's "failure to properly prioritize spending."
He cited what he called the district's $31 million administration building on Macon Road, the cost of which was controversial because of students in portable classrooms. He said the district was building a $500,000 storage facility just for records. He again brought up the board's contract with Hatcher-Stubbs, and noted the board now wants to bid out district custodial services, but not legal services.
He said board members seem to forget they don't work for interim Superintendent John Phillips or for Hatcher-Stubbs; the superintendent and the lawyers work for the board, and the board works for the taxpayers.
When Myers finished, Varner read a statement, saying that over the past several months, "way too much" has been said about the legal fees paid Hatcher-Stubbs. The amount of those fees is "well chronicled," and has been discussed repeatedly since early 2011, he said.
The board has concluded the fees are appropriate for the services, he said: "We're not buying widgets. We're buying legal expertise and legal experience."
The district's annual audits have never raised questions about its legal bills, he said: "If the question is about how much we pay Hatcher-Stubbs, we know the answer, and the public is well aware of this expense. For us to continue discussing it is a waste of time."
They kept discussing it.
Citywide representative Cathy Williams said the law firm's legal fees are less of an issue than the board's awarding the contract for legal services without putting it up for bid.
District 1 representative Pat Hugley Green said people need to look at the hourly rate the board is charged for legal services rather than the annual total. She also said the administration building didn't cost $31 million. It cost $15.2 million, she said.
The board previously has discussed the total cost of legal services as compared to the hourly rate it's charged by Hatcher-Stubbs, the only counsel the board has used since city and county school districts merged in 1950.
Myers in a previous address said the fees the board paid Hatcher-Stubbs more than doubled from $323,254 in fiscal year 2005 to $666,028 in FY 2012. Phillips countered that the board gets a good deal: Hatcher-Stubbs since 2005 hasn't raised the hourly rate it charges the school district -- $165 for partners, $115 for associates.
When that discussion of expenses ended, another began as Alton Russell, next on the board's public agenda, asked about the district's paying to send board members to the National School Boards Association convention, this year held in San Diego.
Russell said he felt the public was justified in questioning how the board spends taxpayer funds, adding, "I'm hoping that I can get out of here and not have to be attacked by the board or maybe get a visit from the GBI."
His latter reference was to some board members' requesting a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe into whether Myers and Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus threatened board representatives over the Hatcher-Stubbs contract.
Wells, Senior and District 8 representative Beth Harris in state ethics complaints filed against McKoon alleged he threatened to withhold state funds from the district if the board didn't ditch Hatcher-Stubbs and seek other legal services. The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed those complaints.
The GBI review of such allegations continues, but Special Agent in Charge Wayne Smith said the agency has concluded its interviews and now awaits higher-ups' decision on whether a full criminal investigation is warranted. The agency did not find it necessary to interview Myers or McKoon, Smith said.
In response to Russell's questioning board trips, Phillips said Monday that some training for board members is required, and it's in line with other professional education travel the district provides for its employees.
Williams countered that the state school board association requires training, but attending the National School Boards Association convention is not required.