School Board suit vs. County Commission could be law firm’s last hurrah

The lawsuit the Indian River County School Board filed against the County Commission over the date of a school tax referendum could be the last hurrah for the board’s longtime law firm.

Attorneys with Garganese, Weiss, D’Agresta & Salzman of Orlando were to appear Wednesday before state Circuit Judge Janet Croom to present the School Board’s arguments for scheduling the referendum during the Aug. 18 primary election.

Meanwhile, law firms interested in replacing Garganese Weiss have until June 29 to submit Letters of Interest to the School District outlining their qualifications and compensation proposals.

The School Board is considering replacing the firm and lead attorney Suzanne D’Agresta because of concerns about costs and results.

The School District paid Garganese Weiss $2.4 million during the past seven years along with another $2 million to other law firms for legal work. The district also remains mired in a 52-year-old federal desegregation case.

Garganese Weiss estimated the emergency complaint filed May 20 against the County Commission would cost the district $20,000-to-$25,000 in legal fees.

County Attorney Dylan Reingold filed a legal brief Thursday arguing the County Commission acted within its legal authority by placing the referendum on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

“When the Legislature wants to grant the district school boards the authority to select the type of election for its (referendum), it says so,” Reingold wrote, citing a 2019 court ruling. “The Legislature did not do so here.”

In addition, Reingold argued, state tax referendum laws contain “no mandatory language binding the County to the placement of the measure on a particular ballot determined by the School Board.”

The School Board’s complaint asks Croom to order the County Commission to meet Thursday, June 4 and vote to place the school tax referendum on the Aug. 18 ballot.

The School Board has a “clear legal right” to have the school tax referendum placed on the August 18 ballot, the complaint claims. And the County Commission has an “indisputable legal duty” to comply with the board’s direction.

Friday is the deadline to submit the referendum to Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan in time for the Aug. 18 primary ballot, records show. Swan is required to send out vote-by-mail ballots to military personnel and overseas travelers by July 4 and local voters by July 9.

The court battle between Indian River County’s two most important elected boards arose out of a School Board proposal to extend a $0.50 per $1,000 optional property tax rate for school operations for four years.

The tax raised $9.4 million in 2019, records show. It adds $125 per year to the annual property tax bill of house with a taxable value of $250,000.

The tax is due to expire June 30, 2021, unless renewed by voters, county records show. Approval of the referendum would extend the tax through June 30, 2025.

Voters last extended the optional property tax rate in the Aug. 30, 2016 primary with 64.26 percent approving, elections records show.

Superintendent of Schools David Moore said he anticipates saving $200,000 in multi-year contract negotiations with vendors if voters approve the school tax extension in August, at the beginning of the school year, instead of November.

Garganese Weiss has served as the School Board’s general counsel since 2007.

The School Board has rejected bids for legal services twice in the past year because they came in too high.

Weiss, Serota, Helfman, Cole & Bierman of Coral Gables was the only firm to respond to the board’s Feb. 2 solicitation for legal services.

“The last proposal was way out of the ballpark to even be negotiable,” said School Board Chairwoman Laura Zorc during the May 28 meeting. “Last time we sent this out, it was pretty well during the middle of the COVID-19 [shutdown]. We will see on June 29 where we end up on this.”

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