Having interviewed three firms interested in representing Moore County Schools, the Board of Education voted Monday to hire Richard Schwartz as its new attorney.
Raleigh-based Schwartz Law will come in behind Tharrington Smith when it steps down June 30. The firm specializes in education law, and Schwartz previously represented the Moore County Board of Education in the 1990s.
The Brough Law Firm of Chapel Hill, which represents Rockingham County Schools as well as 22 North Carolina municipalities including Aberdeen and Whispering Pines, also responded to the board’s request for proposals. So did Sink Law, a husband-and-wife firm in Kings Mountain that specializes in education and currently represents the Cleveland County Board of Education.
Board members Monday unanimously approved the proposed contract with Schwartz Law, with a retainer agreement going into effect July 1.
“I think we unanimously felt that Schwartz Law Firm would give us the most complete and comprehensive coverage of school board issues, especially those dealing with exceptional children and employee contractual law,” said Vice-Chair Libby Carter, who participated in interviews of all three firms along with Chair Pam Thompson and board member Robert Levy, a semi-retired attorney.
“They seemed to be the most knowledgeable and with the ability to keep almost all of our issues in-house.”
Moore County Schools has been a client of Tharrington Smith since 2005. Neal Ramee, one of 18 attorneys in Tharrington Smith’s education law division, served as lead counsel for Moore County Schools in recent years.
This past February the board agreed to an updated retainer agreement with an increase of about 10 percent in the firm’s hourly rate. At the same time Tharrington Smith assigned an associate attorney, Jason Weber, to take the lead in attending board meetings and handling legal issues for the district. Tharrington Smith had previously charged the school board a $600 monthly retainer fee, but waived it in late 2019.
Just over a month later, in late March, Ramee notified the school board that Tharrington Smith would no longer serve as general counsel for the board and Moore County Schools.
Interim Superintendent Tim Locklair said that the district paid Tharrington Smith between $20,000 and $27,000 in legal fees per month. That peaked at $258,0820 in 2020-2021 with added work related to selling the old Southern Pines and Aberdeen school campuses.
The school board’s contract with Schwartz Law includes a $5,000 monthly retainer, which includes attendance at regular board meetings, general consultation, as well as $1,000 worth of policy work per month based on its hourly rates. The agreement also involves six half-day workshop presentations each year.
The board will pay $180 per hour in attorney fees related to litigation and other matters outside of the retainer agreement. That fee applies to work performed by Schwartz as well as the firm’s two associate attorneys.
The firm’s price structure included options for lower monthly retainers and higher hourly fees.
Currently Schwartz Law’s school board clients include Dare, Hertford, Hyde, Anson, Wayne and Clay counties.
“There really wasn’t that much of a contest,” Levy said of the selection. “Overall, they were ready to do our kind of law.”
The Brough Law Firm’s proposal stipulated that the firm was not willing to deal with legal issues related to special education, property transactions or bond counsel.
As Tharrington Smith works with Schwartz to hand over the district’s legal work throughout the rest of June, the school board will pay Schwartz a higher hourly rate with no retainer. Tharrington Smith may continue beyond June 30 to resolve outstanding matters.
“Going forward, obviously, from today, Schwartz will be in the loop with anything that comes up,” said Thompson. “But they will begin to work with Tharrington to bring closure as best as possible.”