W.Va. school board hires lawyer, outside counsel

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education voted on Wednesday to hire its first-ever full-time attorney, whose job will be specifically to tend to the board's needs -- not the Department of Education as a whole.

The state Department of Education already employs two full-time attorneys: Heather Hutchens-Deskins, who makes more than $100,200, and Sherri Goodman, who makes more than $85,000.

Charleston-based attorney Mary Catherine Funk was officially hired at the state board's monthly meeting Wednesday, following an executive session, and will be paid more than $87,000 to "work on matters and policies that affect the board as far as legal issues go," according to Donna Peduto, the board's first-ever director of operations.

The department's two other attorneys handle  "all the entities that the board supervises" like the Regional Education Service Agencies and the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, Peduto said.

The idea to hire another board-specific attorney came at the urging of board member Wade Linger, who, as president, emphasized the need for more distinction between the Department and the Board of Education.

In another unprecedented move, the board is also paying an additional, outside counsel at $210 per hour with the sole job of "overseeing" the board's nationwide search for a new superintendent to replace current superintendent Jim Phares. The board also plans to hire a search firm to conduct that search process.

Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe -- the Charleston-based firm selected in August to oversee the superintendent search -- was also hired by the board last year to represent it in a lawsuit stemming from former state superintendent Jorea Marple's termination. Then, the board paid the firm more than $42,500 for representation.

All of those positions are paid for by the state Department of Education budget, according to officials.

Linger's claims that the board needed more support staff outside of the department personnel received much criticism from teachers unions who complained of too much bureaucracy in the state's public school system.

Teachers unions protested at a state board meeting last March when Peduto was hired for the new board director of operations position making about $104,000 annually.

The board is currently hiring another new position for board purposes only: a "coordinator of board of education agencies," who would report to Peduto. The new hire would make between $72,368 and $79,368, according to a job posting on the Department of Education website.

"I work internally with the board, the department and the legislature. This person will be somebody that reaches out externally for the board," Peduto said.

Peduto said she agrees with Linger's concerns that the board needed more staff and is a separate entity from the Department of Education.

"Maybe the teacher organizations think the jobs all overlap, but there are so many things that are separate, and that makes it busy," Peduto said. "The other thing that's so different about this board is that they're actively involved in the work. They actually help write the policies, they actually help do the work... You need people to assist them, not just in research, but actually working side by side with them because it's such an active board."

Peduto said the legislature approved funding for the three positions - hers, Funk's and the new coordinator of agencies -- in last year's budget bill as part of an improvement package.