Schools Choose Bias Case Lawyer
By Pat Driscoll
A law firm which represented suburban school systems in the Detroit cross-district desegregation case will defend Ann Arbor schools in an economic bias lawsuit filed against Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School last week.
The Ann Arbor Board of Education Wednesday hired Butzel, Long Gust, Klein and Van Zile of Detroit following a closed meeting which lasted nearly two and one-half hours.
Attorneys John Weaver and Willam Saxton of the Butzel firm met with trustees and a handful of school administrators in what Board President Wendy Barhydt claims was a proper session under the new open meetings law. A representative of the Michigan Attorney General’s office in Lansing, said, however, he believed the hiring of the attorneys as described to him by a News reporter may have violated that law.
The board adjourned to a closed chamber for a dinner meeting at 5:30 p.m. after taking a roll call vote to do so. Six board members present — Barhydt. Kathleen Dannemiller, Mary Pence, Cecil Warner, Paul Weinhold and Peter Wright, voted to close the meeting to the public and the press. Board Vice President John Heald and Trustees Terry Martin and Clarence Dukes were absent when the vote was taken, although Dukes later joined the closed meeting.
After returning to regular session at approximately 8 p.m. the board voted to hire the Detroit firm without discussion.
Barhydt said the meeting was legal under a clause in the open meetings law which permits a public body to hold a closed session on a two-thirds vote “to consult with its attorneys regarding trial or settlement strategy in connection with specific pending litigation, but only when an open meeting would have a detrimental financial effect on the litigating or settlement position of the public body.’’
Barhydt said Wednesday that only strategy was discussed during the meeting. Supt. Harry Howard added that the suit could cost the board and taxpayers “millions of dollars” should the plaintiffs be successful, and thus fell under the act.
The lawsuit asks for direct monetary damages of $300,000 from Howard and two other school employees, but no money from the board. Howard said, however, that a court order requested by the suit requiring the schools to provide special resources to low income children could have a substantial financial impact on the board.
Solomon Bienefeld, first assistant attorney general, said what he found disturbing about the situation was the manner in which the attorney was hired.
“The public should know why the board chose him (the attorney),” Bienenfeld said.
Instead the choice of the attorney was apparently made through a series of phone calls by Barhydt and Howard to individual board members asking their preference, a practice which Barhydt maintains is not prohibited by the law.
Bienenfeld said, however, “The act was intended to stop decisions being made by round robins and telephone polls. By contacting all the members privately, the public was effectively prevented from knowing the qualifications of the attorney taking that job.”
Barhydt said the Bienenfeld’s interpretation of the law was one she had never heard before.
She said Saxton was hired because board members thought him best qualified for the job based on his experience with civil rights law. She could not say how the board reached that concensus, although she denied discussing the attorney’s qualifications in the closed meeting.
The lawsuit, filed by the Student Advocacy Center on behalf of 15 black students from the Green Road public housing project, charges that the children were denied an education in King School.
Saxton will represent the Ann Board of Education, Supt. Howard. Hazel Turner, director of pupil personnel services, and Rachael Schrieber, principal of King School, all of whom are named as defendants in the suit.
(Other Board of Education news on Page D-l)
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