School Board attorney billed District over $2.4 million

School Board Attorney Suzanne D'Agresta [File photo]

School District Attorney Suzanne D’Agresta may have priced herself out of a job.

The Orlando-based lawyer, who has held the school district job for more than a decade, is already on thin ice with the School Board after submitting a rogue desegregation report to a federal judge that aroused the ire of the judge, School Board members and the district’s new superintendent.

But it may be her billable hours that end her career in Indian River County, where the School Board is considering options for replacing her.

A review of records shows D’Agresta charged the school district more than $2.4 million in legal fees and travel expenses over the past seven years, at the same time she raked in cash working for other districts around the state.

In addition, the local school district had to cough up another $2 million during the same period to pay outside law firms D’Agresta hired to help her fight lawsuits and perform other legal work, according to school district financial records.

D’Agresta receives a $264,000 annual retainer fee, paid in monthly installments, that covers 30 hours of legal work per week. Along with that income, she’s also received money each year for “additional work performed,” beyond 30 hours a week.

In her most lucrative years, she took in around $400,000 in retainer fees and “overtime” pay. During the 2013-14 school year, the district paid her a total of $406,927.65 for legal fees and expenses. She collected $393,624.26 in 2016-17.

Expenses for her travel to Vero Beach, included in the totals above, typically range between $10,000 and $15,000 per year, according to financial records.

During her long tenure with the Indian River School District, the School Board has never sought competing bids from other lawyers to perform the district’s legal work.

Recently, however, board members have expressed concern over D’Agresta’s legal missteps and hefty fees and begun considering options to replace her, either by taking bids from other outside lawyers or hiring an in-house attorney.

School Board Chairman Laura Zorc said she has long been unhappy about how much the district is paying D’Agresta. She’s also been concerned that the board has never sought bids from other firms since D’Agresta was hired in 2009.

“I brought [the issue] to the board two years ago,” Zorc said. “It’s past time to look at this.”

“It’s nothing personal,” Board Vice-Chairwoman Mara Schiff told D’Agresta during a Jan. 14 work session. “We’ve been dancing around this for the past year.

“We need to make a decision sooner, rather than later.”

Board member Jacqueline Rosario said as elected officials, the board must look at ways to cut costs without harming the quality of education provided to students.

“We have been elected to be the voice of our constituents and be good stewards,” Rosario said during the January work session.”

D’Agresta, who’s contract expires in March, has not made any public statement in response to the board’s concerns and did not respond to requests for comment.

The district’s largest legal bill came during the tenure of former superintendent Mark Rendell, when it paid $775,000 to the law firm of Husch Blackwell, which fought a losing battle to get the district out from under a 52-year-old federal desegregation order.

D’Agresta, who selected Husch Blackwell for the job, was paid an additional $400,000 for working with the firm on the case, raising the total cost to $1,175,000, according to district records.

In addition to her work for Indian River County School District, D’Agresta has been performing legal work for Brevard, Polk and Sarasota school districts during the past three years, school administrators in those districts confirmed.

The amount D’Agresta has been paid by those districts was not immediately available.

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