ANALYSIS: School Board challenged with lawsuit policy

Published 12:15 am Wednesday, November 15, 2017

RESERVE — The St. John the Baptist Parish School Board faces a challenge in implementing new policy to keep up with current and future litigation.

A special-called meeting last week of the School Board highlighted numerous opposing factions within the framework of public education in St. John, not the least of which is a simmering feud between the School Board’s general counsel (the District Attorney’s Office) and litigation attorney (Becnel Law Firm).

Highlighting the attorneys’ opposing positions were numerous critical accusations of each by the other during the public forum portions of the most recent meeting.

District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut told School Board members her stated concerns about Becnel Law Firm managing attorney Kevin Klibert would be submitted to the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board, because she is “no longer confident in the representation provided by Mr. Klibert.”

Dinvaut stressed Klibert, Superintendent Kevin George and School District Finance Director Felix Boughton have failed to provide her office with information pertaining to the lawsuits and settlements brought against and settled in the name of the School Board.

She suggested intentional mail dishonesty could have been behind rogue information addressed to the D.A.’s office with suspect addressing.

Dinvaut also questions George’s decision not to seek outside representation when sued along with the School Board, calling it a use of “pro bono” representation on the public dime.

“What is the problem with being transparent?” Dinvaut said during last week’s meeting. “What is the problem with being accountable? Why can’t we have copies of the files?

“Yes, (Klibert) has prepared information for your audit report. However, he will refuse and be defiant and not allow me to have the same information for my audit report.”

Klibert said his actions concerning lawsuit and settlement work with public school administrators, along with his communications with the District Attorney’s office, have not changed in the more than 10 years he has served as Public Schools Litigation Attorney.

Klibert described Dinvaut’s “rhetoric” as “election year” grandstanding, specifically the “personal attacks.”

“I am not here to get any political momentum out of this,” he told Board members.

Towards the end of what was more than 30 minutes of lawyer-against-lawyer bickering, School Board Member Russ Wise said, “with all due respect to both of you nice folks, the arguing back and forth does not pertain to what we’re trying to do at this point.”

Lawyer vs. Lawyer

The fracture between Dinvaut and Klibert was highlighted with the recent lawsuit settlement between the School Board and Elton Oubre Jr.

Dinvaut maintains the $100,000 settlement is a decision against the School Board, something that should have been discussed through an agenda item with the entire School Board because the expenditure put taxpayers on the hook for $100K.

Klibert maintains, by definition, a settlement is an agreement between both parities where each gives and takes and to suggest otherwise is legally incorrect.

George said the settlement was money owed to Oubre because of contract and built-up vacation and sick time, noting the taxpayers gave up nothing extra in the process.

The School Board has since instructed its general counsel, litigation attorney and administrators to develop a policy to submit for Board approval concerning litigation awareness.

“Let the superintendent and these two nice folks sit down together and develop a policy to go as deep as everybody agrees it should and bring that proposed policy to us so we can debate it and amend it as we see fit and proceed,” Wise said.

“All of this has already happened. It is behind us. (We have) to make sure we don’t have this kind of confusion again. Let’s make sure there is a policy as part of our policy manual that we can just dig up and say ‘look here, this is what it says we are supposed to do.’”

Numerous School Board meeting observers and participants questioned the ability of the opposing factions to work in harmony.

The School Board also instructed the District Attorney to receive copies of all recent settlement information and ongoing litigation material.

Furthermore, the School Board instructed the Administration provide its members with a list of lawsuits and settlements reached in recent years, along with documentation of where expenditures were paid from.

Community concern

A sizable and vocal turnout of local residents attended last week’s meeting and each who spoke during allotted public speech periods was critical of the School Board’s lack of knowledge concerning litigation spending.

Former longtime parish tax assessor Whitney Joseph expressed befuddled disappointment.

“You mean to tell me you’re not aware of monies being spent,” he said. “You mean to tell me y’all sit here and you don’t have a policy. This is about the fact that a suit was settled and this Board did not have any awareness about what was going on.”

Current Parish Councilman Larry Snyder called it a “slap in the face” that the Board was not being informed of ongoing litigation.

“You will be responsible if we do have another suit or if it comes back on us someway,” Snyder said. “You guys would be the one we would have to come to for answers.

Acrimony & animosity

Following last week’s meeting, Superintendent Kevin George said he feels caught in the middle of a District Attorney and Becnel Law Firm disagreement that may go beyond the Oubre case.

“I walked into this job in 2013 with a system that was in place,” George said in relation to his settlement approach.

“I continued that system regarding lawsuits, settlements and the like. The Board can create policies where they are more involved in lawsuits and approving settlements. That is totally up to the Board’s discretion. We’re going to work on a policy that makes everyone happy.”

In response to the concerns raised at the meeting, School Board President Ali Burl said administrators and Klibert inadequately kept School Board members aware of ongoing litigation — a process that must change.

“While the superintendent is in charge of the hiring and firing of the teachers and employees, it is the School Board’s responsibility for the fiscal management of the School System,” Burl said.

“We’re trying to get to the bottom of it so this won’t happen in the future. When we are making settlements, it will come before the Board and we will make the right decision.”