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Board should keep looking before settling on attorney

Karen Gaffney may be talking herself out of a job, but the part-time Hernando County School Board attorney is being more realistic than her bosses about the prospect of taking on the position full time.

After talking about it for three years, School Board members decided a few months ago to hire a lawyer who would be a district employee and work exclusively for the board. The board asked Gaffney whether she would end her contractual arrangement with the board _ which pays her between $100 and $125 per hour _ and take the job full time. Gaffney declined, citing a reluctance to close her private law practice and also ongoing health problems related to a 2002 automobile accident.

Based on Gaffney's response, the board decided to advertise for a full-time attorney. Gaffney wrote the job description and presented it to the board.

But, at a workshop meeting Tuesday, School Board members did an about-face. They decided they did not want to lose Gaffney. Her expertise and her 12-year tenure as overseer of the district's legal affairs are too valuable, they reasoned. So they instructed superintendent Wendy Tellone to work out an arrangement with Gaffney that will bring her aboard as full-time attorney when her contract expires Dec. 31. The board also told Tellone and Gaffney to come to an agreement about a schedule that would allow Gaffney to work from her home some days.

Nice work if you can get it, and Gaffney has it within her grasp now that the board has placed all its eggs in one basket by declining to seek other applicants while Gaffney and Tellone powwow.

Gaffney acknowledged that the arrangement might be problematic. "I'm just really concerned that it will be difficult to work out a system that works," she told the board Tuesday.

But board members apparently do not share her concerns. They are willing to make what board member John Druzbick called "concessions" because "her experience would outweigh the inconvenience."

Inconvenience to whom? The board? The superintendent's administrative staff? Or to the hundreds of other district employees who are expected to show up for work every day to earn much less than the $125,000 Gaffney makes?

The School Board should have made the attorney's job full time three years ago, when Tellone first made the suggestion. It makes sense financially and would strengthen the administrative staff. Having a full-time attorney, one who is not distracted by other clients, in the office and accessible to the district staff increases accountability in the legal staff's workload and productivity.

But, beyond the inherent advantages of having a full-time attorney at its disposal, there is another matter the School Board should take into consideration: Gaffney's performance.

Although she has been consistent in accomplishing routine legal tasks, Gaffney has a spotty record when advising the board and the superintendent on some of their more thorny topics.

Gaffney has given the board advice that was either outright wrong or at least shaky several times, including open meetings, public records, land use regulations, charter schools, meeting quorums and offering prayer before board meetings.

No one is perfect, and that includes lawyers. But before the board goes overboard in praising Gaffney's experience and expertise and using that as justification to exclude every other lawyer in Florida who may be interested in the job, her shortcomings should be taken into account and put into perspective.

Gaffney recognizes that her inability to be in a school district office at least 40 hours per week could present a problem. Yet one can hardly blame her for entertaining an offer as generous as the board is contemplating.

But taxpayers should blame the board for limiting its possibilities and its willingness to give Gaffney special treatment that is not available to other employees, many of whom have skills and experience, although different, that are as valuable.