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Does Jefferson County Schools sometimes conduct business by verbal agreements or informal handshakes?

When the Spirit of Jefferson formally asked school officials last month for the salary of its current general counsel on staff, the answer returned was that the high-level position was currently filled by an outsourced attorney, Laura Sutton.

When a follow-up request was made to obtain the written contract between the school system and Sutton, the answer was, from Sutton herself as the county’s general counsel, that there was no such contract to provide.

That’s because Sutton, as she explained in an email, works for the school system through a regional educational service cooperative called the Eastern Panhandle Instruction Cooperative based in Martinsburg.

“As a member of the Eastern Panhandle Instructional Cooperative (EPIC), the Jefferson County Board of Education (Board) May use EPIC’s services with or without a specific contract,” Sutton wrote. “Accordingly, there is no contract between the Board and EPIC regarding my services and no document to satisfy your request.”

EPIC combines the financial resources of nine public school systems, including Jefferson and Berkeley counties, to provide support services for such needs as bus driver training, computer system support and substitute teacher training, and early-intervention kindergarten programs.

Legal advice is not listed on EPIC’s website as a service the organization provides.

Sherry Barnett, EPIC’s administrator, did not respond to a request for information and clarification about Sutton’s service to Jefferson’s school system.

Sutton stated that public information about what the school system pays EPIC for her legal counsel and other services can be obtained by reviewing financial invoices the Jefferson County school board approves during its biweekly public meetings.

Those EPIC invoices are included, along with all of the other invoices the school system pays, on school board meeting agendas posted on the school system’s website.

“Under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act, our duty to respond to your request is at an end,” Sutton concluded her explanation in a Sept. 8 response.

During Monday’s school board meeting three separate payments to EPIC totaling $108,282 were approved. But a listing of those invoices posted on the meeting’s agenda did not indicate what any of those payments were for.

Listings of invoices that the school board approves for payment that were posted on previous meeting agendas also lack sufficient information to determine what the school system is paying for.

The Spirit asked school officials for Sutton’s salary while attempting to obtain information about what locally funded pay raises the Jefferson County school board gave to 38 school administration positions on June 22. The position of staff general counsel, now vacant but served by Sutton through EPIC, was one of those positions that received a pay raise through a special administrator pay scale.

A dozen weeks after the administrator pay raises were approved, information requested by the Spirit for at least eight of the 38 administrator positions known to have received a pay raise remains incomplete.

So these questions remain: What does the school system pay either EPIC or Sutton for her legal counsel? What kind of agreement does the school system have with EPIC to obtain Sutton’s counsel, or for any other EPIC service? How and when can the public find out?

Sutton attended Monday’s nearly three-hour meeting over the online Zoom platform, but she did not comment during the public portion of the session.

A 1995 graduate of West Virginia University’s law school, Sutton served as general counsel and assistant superintendent for Berkeley County Schools from 1997 until early 2018.

Certified to work as a school superintendent, Sutton, a 57-year-old Martinsburg resident, left Berkeley County Schools and joined the Bowles Rice law firm in Martinsburg in April 2018.

She began serving as general counsel for Jefferson County Schools through EPIC sometime this year.

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