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Hamburg school legal fees soar to $224,000

Chaos, it seems, is costly.

The Hamburg School District has spent a staggering $224,000 on legal fees for the first half of this year.

Nearly half of that amount was targeted for the removal of School Board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci and the legal maneuvers to keep her misconduct hearing closed to the public.

Legal work leading up to the charges of official misconduct brought against Schrauth Forcucci on April 30, followed by 21 hours for the hearing, cost the district $99,619. The hearing officer and court stenographer cost an additional $12,890, for a total of $112,509 for the hearing through the end of June. Hodgson Russ is giving the district a 10 percent discount on its fee for the hearing, bringing the net cost to $102,547.

But the legal invoices provided by the district are only through June 30, and they don’t include another 24 hours of the hearing conducted in August, or the legal costs associated with Superintendent Richard E. Jetter, who was put on paid administrative leave in July after he admitted to police that he, not vandals, damaged his car.

The invoices were released after a Freedom of Information request by The Buffalo News.

Board member Sally A. Stephenson, a staunch supporter of Schrauth Forcucci, had predicted that legal fees for the district would be in the area of $250,000.

“It is absolutely ridiculous,” she said.

But board President David M. Yoviene said the cost of the hearing has been worth it.

“I certainly think it was worth it. It’s something we had to do,” he said.

The invoices do cover the efforts by the district to keep the hearing behind closed doors, despite Schrauth Forcucci’s desire that it be open. She filed a legal challenge in State Supreme Court, and she was successful there and in the state Appellate Division.

“In hindsight, that obviously was a mistake,” Yoviene said of efforts to keep the hearing secret. “But hindsight is 20/20.”

He said the district did not want to humiliate Schrauth Forcucci with an open hearing.

“We wanted to make it private to keep it from becoming the media circus it became,” he said. “We still didn’t want the spectacle it became.”

He was satisfied that he was able to negotiate a discount on the costs associated with the efforts to remove Schrauth Forcucci.

“We worked them over and tried to save every dime on this one,” he said.

While the hearing is over, the process is not. The board is waiting for the hearing officer to come up with recommendations on the charges, and then board members will decide whether to remove Schrauth Forcucci from the board. If she is removed, she has vowed to appeal to the state education commissioner.

The legal fees also include:

• $52,863 for undisclosed “personnel matters.”

• $44,699 for “board attorney matters.”

• $2,025 for student discipline matters and $3,581 for an unspecified “Hostile Work” matter, believed to be connected with a complaint Principal James S. Martinez filed against Schrauth Forcucci, Stephenson and another board member.

Hodgson Russ offers the district the full range of legal services, from labor and arbitration matters to assessment challenges that could affect the tax base, to advice on Freedom of Information requests.

Legal representation and fees have been contentious issues in the district for several years.

Several current board members, including Yoviene, criticized previous boards for the high legal fees of one of its previous firms, Harris Beach. The district paid that firm $260,000 in fees for the 2010-11 school year. And one of the charges against Schrauth Forcucci stemmed from her attempt to talk to Jetter about those legal fees in September.

The board majority formed in July 2013 replaced Harris Beach with James D. Tresmond, who charged the district a flat fee of $113,000 a year. The district did not pay him after he resigned. The district hired Hodgson Russ in mid-January.

Hourly fees for Hodgson Russ range from $113 for a paralegal to $247 for a law partner.

Many of the details associated with the legal work have been redacted by the district, which is allowed to block out information that could identify students, as well as legal advice, strategy or opinions, according to Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

But some of the redactions appear to go beyond those guidelines.

The general description of service, amount of time spent and how much was billed is public information, Freeman said. Many of the details of legal work leading up to the filing of charges against Schrauth Forcucci have been blacked out. In many instances, the names of individuals contacted in telephone calls and the general description of the call or conference have been redacted.

But the State Court of Appeals has ruled attorney-client privilege “is not limitless,” Freeman has stated in an advisory opinion. The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled on federal law and found that “ ‘questions pertaining to the date and general nature of legal services performed’ did not violate client confidentiality,” according to Freeman’s opinion.

Meanwhile, the School Board on Thursday night appointed Vincent J. Coppola as acting superintendent.