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Hamburg school officials appoint new attorney for the district

HAMBURG — The Hamburg Central School District appointed a new law firm for district legal representation at the Jan. 14 meeting, voting to approve Hodgson Russ LLP as Hamburg’s primary attorney, immediately.

District officials also approved retaining the firm Bond, Schoeneck & King of Buffalo as a backup firm, in case issues such as conflicts of interest and pending litigation exist and require further representation.

James Tresmond’s firm had been appointed as the district’s attorney last July – amid controversy from some district officials who questioned Tresmond’s qualifications – before Tresmond resigned on Dec. 31.

Hourly legal rates for Hodgson Russ LLP range from $113 for paralegals to $211 for associates; $233 senior associates and $247 for partners, according to School Business Administrator Barbara Sporyz.

It was reported that Hamburg had received seven legal firms’ requests for proposal, in response to district officials’ posting the position.

Board Vice President Sally Stephenson said that Tresmond allowed the district to abscond from the contract with his firm, without placing further financial burdens on Hamburg.

Many in the audience whom, in the past, had criticized the process in which Tresmond was hired, broke into applause at the announcement of a contract revision for a new school attorney.

The school board voted 5-to-2 to approve hiring Hodgson Russ, with board members Holly Balaya and Catherine Schrauth-Forcucci’s casting dissenting votes. Both cited financial reasons for their votes, citing Hodgson Russ’s higher rate of legal representation as compared to other firms that had submitted RFPs.

“We’re hiring the most expensive firm and we’re looking at [incurring] the same legal expenses that we had in 2010,” Balaya said. “There were plenty of competent firms that applied.”

Schrauth Forcucci said that the board did not seek her opinion regarding moving forward with Hodgson Russ, and added that there was limited discussion about the matter.

Board Member Thomas Flynn III said that Hamburg is essentially paying for the new firm’s high-quality legal services. It was noted that the firm’s legal partner, Karl Kristoff, is renowned for his expertise, having practiced law since 1968 and also having been designated by the New York state commissioner of education for cases concerning teaching certification.

“There’s more that goes into [hiring] than looking at expenses,” Flynn said. “There’s bench strength and experience in educational law. [Kristoff] is one of best attorneys in New York state. [Hiring Hodgson Russ] will help us in all legal issues. The money is well spent and it will come back to us.”

Stephenson, who helped to engineer the appointment of Tresmond in July, described Hodgson Russ as being a good choice for school attorney, adding, “I think we’ll be in good hands.”

The appointment of Bond, Schoeneck & King as a “backup” firm also came at a board vote of 5-to-2, with Balaya and Schrauth Forcucci’s again casting dissenting votes.

The pair, along with Stephenson, asked for monetary cap amounts in the scenario that the backup firm is utilized for certain pending cases.

Board President David Yoviene, along with Flynn, Board Member Laura Heeter and interim District Superintendent Richard Jetter, countered that the appointment of Bond, Schoeneck & King is strictly a “just-in-case” measure that is unlikely to result in major travail.

“It’s sewing up loose ends in the district,” Jetter said, adding that the district had been without formal legal representation since Dec. 31, the date of Tresmond’s resignation. “We can no longer be in limbo.”

“It’s simply something to have in place to be proactive for pending legal investigations,” Heeter added.

Flynn said that using Bond, Schoeneck & King would be on strictly an as-needed basis. Legal rates for the firm were said to be $225.

A motion to table the appointment of the backup law firm was rejected by a board vote of 4-to-3.

Also on Jan. 14, the board voted to put a teacher, identified by parents as Martha Kavanaugh, on administrative leave, beginning Jan. 15. Kavanaugh has been on sick leave since October.

Stephenson and Balaya abstained on the vote to put the teacher on leave, and Schrauth Forcucci voted against the measure. She and Stephenson suggested tabling the vote. The board’s measure also drew applause from those in attendance.

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