CHARLES TOWN – After informally agreeing since February to pay an outside attorney an annual $161,866 fee for legal services, Jefferson County Schools formally signed a written agreement two weeks ago to put that verbal understanding in writing.
Laura Sutton was hired last February as a non-staff attorney for Jefferson County Schools for an annual flat fee. In a recent interview, she pointed out that the school system’s pay for her does not include health or retirement benefits that school employees received.
The document that outlines in writing her duties and pay, starting July 1, the start of the school system’s current fiscal year, was approved Sept. 28.
Sutton said establishing a written agreement that outlines her legal service was neglected during a busy period for the school system when she was hired in February. The turmoil and distraction that the coronavirus pandemic created for the school system starting in March was a major reason a written document was not completed until recently, she said.
Among other responsibilities, the agreement states that Sutton is to provide day-to-day legal advice to school administrators; conduct legal research; represent school officials and school board members in court and before outside government agencies; represent the school system during employee and parent grievance actions; and respond to public information requests.
Sutton is also assigned the task of reviewing contracts.
She is supposed to provide the school system “at least 40 hours per week” of legal services.
“When performing legal services under this Agreement, the attorney’s duty of loyalty will be to the corporate school board, even when the Board’s best interests differ from those of the administration,” the two-page agreement states. “The Board and its employees shall exercise no control over the performance of, evaluation or treatment of the service provider, except to assure that the services meet usual competency standards.”
The school board can terminate Sutton’s services anytime after giving a 30-day notice in writing.
Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson has been regularly meeting with Sutton, who works from the school system’s administrative office in Charles Town, on Tuesdays..
The agreement was backdated to July 1 by Gibson and Sherry Barnett, an administrator of the Eastern Panhandle Instructional Cooperative, also known by its acronym EPIC.
The Martinsburg-based cooperative provides a variety of services and sometimes non-staff employees, including substitute teachers and bus drivers, on a contract basis for nine school systems in the region, including those for Jefferson and Berkeley counties.
The school system’s now vacant general counsel staff position was among 38 positions to receive a salary-scale pay raise by the school board on June 22.
Since graduating from West Virginia University’s law school in 1995, Sutton has accumulated 23 years of legal experience. If she were working as a full-time staff attorney for the school system, her annual pay would be $125,378, according to information provided by the school system. That total would not include health insurance and retirement benefits that the school system pays its employees.
Sutton previously worked for Berkeley County Schools for 22 years, leaving that school system as a staff attorney and assistant superintendent. She left the school system to join the Bowles Rice law firm in Martinsburg in April 2018, where she focused on educational law.
By February, Sutton had left the law firm to help fashion the legal services arrangement with Jefferson County Schools through EPIC.