County and city school boards agree on how to pick MTC’s attorney

After exchanges between Rockingham County School Board and Harrisonburg City School Board members, the two entities came together Monday night and voted to allow the two systems’ school superintendents to each propose new legal representation names for Massanutten Technical Center. 

Monday night’s emergency meeting of the Massanutten Technical Center’s board came at Chair Kristen Loftin’s request following the decision by the RCPS school board to fire their legal representation, BotkinRose, and hire Litten & Sipe, a law firm that is working with the ultra-conservative Alliance Defending Freedom to sue the Harrisonburg School System. The Rockingham County and Harrisonburg school boards share funding and oversight of Massanutten Technical Center. 

The Harrisonburg School Board said the Rockingham board’s hiring of Litten & Sipe presented a conflict of interest because the two school systems share the operating and capital improvement costs. (Rockingham County takes on the larger split of the operating budget: currently 81% of the budget. Harrisonburg pays the other 19%.)

Rockingham County board members began Monday’s meeting by chastising members of the city school board for calling the meeting but said they were willing to work through the issues and consider different legal representation for MTC. 

RCPS Board Member Sara Horst said that while the RCPS Board felt “very proud” of the partnership between the two entities and valued the partnership, she felt that the situation had spiraled out of control. 

“From Rockingham County’s perspective, this meeting does feel a little unnecessary in that simply when we do have those good relationships built among board members, these kinds of things like what we are going to talk about tonight can easily be solved with a phone call,” Horst said. 

RCPS Board Chair Matt Cross took a harsher tone by deriding HPCS Board member Deb Fitzgerald for posting a photo of Cross’s empty chair at the last MTC meeting and posting it to Facebook. Loflin called him out of order, then Cross reiterated that the issue could have been resolved “by a simple phone call.” 

HPCS Board member Tom Domonoske called for a motion to have MTC’s director Kevin Hutton take on the responsibility of compiling a list of possible legal representation, which members of the RCPS board said they did not agree with. Cross said he believed that because of RCPS’s larger share, the county board should create the list of possible new legal representation. 

After much deliberation and several amendments to the original motion, the group reached a compromise and unanimously supported the two systems’ superintendents, Michael Richards from the city and Larry Shifflett from the county identifying two law firms that could best represent MTC. 

MTC works with legal representation at least once a year when the goods and services that MTC students make and build are sold to the public, Hutton said. Large items like cars and homes that students build require contracts. 

Cross said the attorney with Litten & Sipe, Daniel Rose, with whom the board would be working had cleared his representation of MTC with the Virginia State Bar. Cross questioned whether there was any conflict of interest with the city board.

“There is litigation going on now, and so there is attorney interaction now, and so I think time is of the essence here,” Richards said. 

“There is a significant conflict of interest, and so I disagree with [that],” Richards continued. 

Richards then laid out four areas of conflict: first, the attorney litigating against the city board would also be defending the city district’s interests at the same time. Second, attorneys are not supposed to be privy to information from opposing parties. Third, he said, there is a “conflict of confidence” for the city’s school board that the attorney would have their best interests in mind. Fourth, Richards said, there is a “clear public perception of a conflict of interest” that can be enough to pose an actual conflict of interest. 

Members of the Rockingham County and Harrisonburg City school boards meet Monday night to determine how to handle the Massanutten Technical Center’s attorney. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

County board members said that they better understood the reasons behind the city board members’ request for the meeting, and as both boards worked through more of the details behind their final decision, the conversation’s tone lightened. 

RCPS board member Jackie Lohr seemed to serve as the liaison between the two systems, helping guide the board members through the discussion of amendments to the original motion.

Ultimately, the unanimous vote gave both superintendents the task of selecting two law firms to bring back to the MTC executive board. They must submit their lists by April 23 and MTC’s executive board will meet no later than April 30 to select new legal representation for MTC.

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