The board of the Duquesne City School District voted unanimously to hire Burrell A. Brown as a special counsel to fight the state's plans to appoint a receiver for the district -- a move that will launch the district into a murky area of state law.
Mr. Brown will provide special legal representation to the board "at a cost not to exceed $1,500," board president DeWayne Tucker said.
Though Mr. Brown's appointment passed unanimously, school director Burton Comensky expressed concern that legal fees would quickly exceed $1,500.
"Litigation is expensive," Mr. Comensky said. "If it gets to be five or 10 thousand, we don't have money for that."
The vote was taken at a special meeting Tuesday night, a week after Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Judith L.A. Friedman postponed a decision on the receivership until April 2.
Duquesne is one of four school districts in the state currently under the provisions of the Financial Recovery Act, which was enacted by the legislature last summer. The act prescribes the action to be taken for districts that are among the most financially troubled in the state.
For 12 years, the district had been managed by a three-member state board of control. After the state education secretary in August declared the district in financial recovery and the board of control in November approved Paul B. Long as chief recovery officer, the elected board came back into power.
Mr. Long, a former school administrator and Naval commander, was charged with composing a financial recovery plan. His plan, presented Feb. 11, involves asking 11 surrounding districts to take some or all of the 350 Duquesne students in grades K-6 on a voluntary basis at a tuition rate of $8,000 per student.
So far, 10 of the 11 solicited school districts have refused to take Duquesne students, according to Mr. Long.
The Duquesne school board rejected that plan last month. Under state law, that rejection meant the matter headed to Common Pleas Court, where a receiver was to be named. The state education department requested that Mr. Long be named receiver and as such would take the reins of the district from the board and carry out his recovery plan.
But Judge Friedman decided that Mr. Long's plan did not constitute a legitimate plan because it did not say for certain where the Duquesne students would attend school next year. She gave Mr. Long a month to come up with a more definitive plan.
Since then, Mr. Long said it is most likely that Duquesne students will remain in Duquesne for the 2013-14 school year.
District solicitor Andrew Evankovich said state law does not clarify exactly what will happen if the state's petition to appoint a receiver is rejected.
Mr. Burrell -- the board's newly appointed lawyer -- said the board should remain in control if a receiver is not appointed. He declined to comment further on the board's legal strategy.
Archie Perrin, acting superintendent of the Wilkinsburg School District, was in attendance and began a heated discussion over Mr. Long's plan.
He said he was at the meeting as a concerned citizen, not in his capacity as superintendent.
"When can a group of citizens [...] meet with [superintendent Paul] Rach or Dr. Long about the proposed plan that is now in court, to offer an alternative to what has already been presented?" Mr. Perrin asked.
Both Mr. Evankovich and Mr. Long said state law does not allow for changes to the recovery plan to be made at this point.
"If the judge determines something else, that's a different question," Mr. Evankovich said.