When Sarasota County School Board attorney Art Hardy first started legal work for the school board in the early 1990s, the superintendent’s office had two large metal trash cans.
“One was for trash, one was for catching water that came through the roof,” Hardy said.
In the 30 years since then, more has changed than just the move from World War II portable buildings on Hatton Street to the Landings Complex.
In the 1990s, Art Hardy could not understand how dramatically social media would undermine civility in local politics, how shootings would alter security, or how charter schools and voucher programs would emerge.
For about three decades, Hardy has been a key behind-the-scenes advisor coordinating the school district property tax referendum and reminding school council members that fighting in Facebook comment areas can be a violation of Florida sunshine laws.
Now that Hardy’s retirement is approaching, it is the job of the Sarasota school board to replace the man who survived 10 superintendents and 21 school board members.
Hardy doesn’t consider who to replace him, but he does have some advice to help survive the myriad legal battles and dueling personalities that populate school boards.
“If there wasn’t a clear legal answer, which often wasn’t, I would try to give the school board the pros and cons,” Hardy said. “And try to remind yourself that it is your decision, not.” I. I give the advice. ”
There are five firms vying for the school board’s account, and on Tuesday the board is due to interview attorneys representing each firm.
The five lawyers interested in filling Hardy’s position are:
- John Quick with Weiss Serota Helfman Cole and Bierman, PL in Coral Gables
- R. David Jackson with Persson, Cohen & Mooney in Venice and Lakewood Ranch
- Michael McKinley with Wotitzky, Wotitzky, Ross, McKinley and Young in Punta Gorda
- Amanda Bartley with Chartwell Law in Fort Myers
- Daniel DeLeo, Patrick Duggan and Mark Connolly with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP in Sarasota.
During the workshop on January 7th, the members of the school council gave an initial insight into their priorities.
Bridget Ziegler said experience in properly representing elected governing bodies is an important requirement for her. She found that Hardy rarely brought his personal opinion to his legal counsel and instead presented options and accompanying consequences in decision-making to the board of directors.
“I’ve seen other school council meetings in other counties, and there are very different general styles of legal advice,” said Ziegler. “There are some that I’ve seen with some surprise and sometimes horror.”
Karen Rose repeatedly stressed that she wanted the board to make a unanimous decision.
She did not select companies that would not get her vote during the discussion, but her emphasis on unanimity implied that there might be a candidate she would not support.
After the meeting, she said that hiring Dan DeLeo’s company – Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP – would be a step backwards into a more contentious era for the school district.
DeLeo, who worked closely with board member Jane Goodwin at the PAC, which supports the district property tax referendum, was also closely linked to former superintendent Todd Bowden during some litigation with Bowden.
The Shumaker company represented Bowden during the application process when Bowden faced allegations of sexual harassment by former female subordinates. At the time, DeLeo wasn’t the senior attorney directly representing Bowden, but he told reporters that Sarasota Classified / Teachers Association officials used the women’s complaints to deny Bowden the job.
After Bowden was hired and on duty, DeLeo urged the board of directors to give Bowden a contract that required a super majority to dismiss him. The board eventually approved such a contract, which turned out to be a controversial decision, especially as Bowden became a lightning rod for controversy and eventually negotiated a departure.
Rose said she opposed DeLeo’s election not because he defended Bowden, but because of his personal involvement in a disorderly season for the district.
“It’s just all wrapped up in a less than student-centered, community-focused, collaborative board era,” said Rose. “It wasn’t the best time for our school board or the best time for the presiding superintendent.”
DeLeo said he was only tangentially involved in Bowden’s various defenses, his company “vigorously” represents its customers, and he was “shocked and surprised that this is a problem for everyone”.
“If we’re the most qualified team to deal with this, we should get the job,” said DeLeo. “If we’re not, someone else should.”
While Rose called for a unanimous decision, board chairwoman Shirley Brown said unanimous support is more important to whoever is chosen.
“I don’t know what she meant that we have to make a unanimous decision,” Brown said. “You choose who you want and you support who the majority voted for.”
Many other similar sized counties have separate executive and administrative legal departments. Goodwin said she would like Sarasota to explore this avenue, although she does not want the administrative attorney to take an in-house position due to the overheads involved.
Brown said the board would hold a special meeting on Jan. 26 to discuss applicants and make a selection.