By Harold C. Ford
“It’s going to get ugly … I’m ready for the fight … This man here [former Flint school board attorney Kendall Williams] making a million dollars. Unbelievable.”
–Joyce Ellis-McNeal, Oct. 13, 2021, Flint school board meeting
Fees charged to Flint Community Schools (FCS) by The Williams Firm, for legal services, and Lambert & Co., for public relations work, came under intense scrutiny by the Flint Board of Education (FBOE) at its Oct. 13 and 20 meetings.
Long-held suspicions by some FBOE members, and others, about alleged excessive charges by The Williams Firm were brought into public view, led by Charis Lee, the board’s new attorney, and FBOE Treasurer Laura MacIntyre.
Also, Lee said that during her investigation, “There were many, many allegations regarding there may have been an improper relationship between legal counsel and certain board members.”
Again, led by MacIntyre, the board took the Lambert public relations firm to task for its monthly charges of almost $10,000 in June and July.
THE WILLIAMS FIRM
Forensic audit and referral to Michigan Attorney Grievance Committee
At the conclusion of Lee’s 90-minute appearance Oct. 13, the board voted 6-0 to request that Plante-Moran, an accounting firm that serves the district, conduct a forensic audit of fees paid by FCS to The Williams Firm. The motion also called for the district to refer the matter to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Committee for its review.
The Michigan Attorney Grievance Committee has the authority to impose punishment(s) including: disbarring of attorneys; revocation of attorneys’ licenses; and imposition of restitution payments.
Further actions may be undertaken by the FBOE depending on the forensic audit, a review by the Attorney Grievance Commission, and further investigation by Lee and her team. Additional actions might include a lawsuit and/or a criminal investigation, Lee said.
[Note: EVM has reached out to attorney Williams and former FBOE members Diana Wright, Vera Perry, Antoinette Lockett, and Casey Lester for their responses to the charges detailed below. EVM will publish their replies at its website and/or in its print edition.]
A prepared statement, read aloud by Lee, contained serious allegations:
“The review revealed, in my team’s opinion, that The Williams Firm allegedly engaged in excessive staffing of assignments, completed unnecessary work, engaged in conflict of interest, double-billed for time … and likely breached fiduciary duties.”
Lee’s allegations were based on conversations with “multiple” former superintendents, board members, and administrators. Lee reported that she and her team had, thus far, reviewed pertinent documents for a six-month period from Dec. 2020 to May 2021.
“We found several indicators that support allegations that the Flint Community School District were overcharged for legal services,” Lee said.
She continued: The Williams Firm engaged in “repetitive billing, meaning more than one attorney billing for the same work, several charges (fees) from attorneys reviewing each other’s work, charges for attorneys reviewing correspondence from another attorney to clients, charges for attorneys reviewing emails for each other, unnecessary legal conferences where each attorney was paid to have discussions with one another.”
Lee told East Village Magazine there were years The Williams Firm billed FCS a million dollars while the district paid another $600,000 for additional legal assistance.
“What could $1.6 million do for staff and kids?”Lee wondered aloud.
Former FCS superintendents rebel
Lee said that Linda Thompson, former FCS Superintendent (2008-12), hired “in-house counsel” (Flint attorney Karen Pugh) to offset excessive fees from Williams. “It (the offset) didn’t happen,” said Lee.
“After Superintendent Thompson began a review of the legal bills, to reduce the large legal bills, attorney Williams allegedly abused his influence with the board to attempt to rid the district of anyone who disagreed,” Lee charged.
“She (Thompson) left because of this,” said Lee.
“During Superintendent [Derrick] Lopez’s tenure here (2018-20) …. For months he did not pay the legal fees of The Williams Firm due to the fact that he disagreed with the bills,” Lee said. “When he was removed, those bills were eventually paid.”
In a statement read to the board, Danielle Green, current FBOE vice president, recollected “We [she and Lopez] collectively agreed something needed to be done.”
Green said she experienced “tremendous pushback” including a background check, credit report, license plate examination, and nonresident charges. “Things were going to happen to you,” Green said. “You knew you were going to be retaliated against.”
Green said Casey Lester, then-FBOE president, “suggested that I resign from the board.”
“Improper relationships” alleged
Lee told the board: “There were many, many allegations regarding there may have been an improper relationship between legal counsel, The Williams Firm, specifically Kendall Williams, and certain board members.”
When pressed by current board members, Lee named former board members Vera Perry, Diana Wright, and Antoinette Lockett.
Lee cautioned, “We have to give people the benefit of the doubt … my findings are not legal findings. You need a court of law … to have legal findings.”
Carol McIntosh, current FBOE president, said that when she asked The Williams Firm for FCS bank account balances, she was told by former FBOE treasurer Perry, “He’s got a day job” and doesn’t have time to provide that to you.”
“It was painfully clear to me at that time that the fix was in and it was not in the best interest of our schools,” McIntosh recalled.
Perry was the FBOE treasurer for 20 years.
Current board members respond
“I knew this was coming,” said MacIntyre. “I’ve seen these documents.”
“I want to go as far as we can with this,” continued MacIntyre. “I don’t think it’s just a matter of recovering money, I want to see some justice for the Flint schools and for our students and families.”
Alan Gilbert, new board trustee, added: “I’m after the truth, nothing but the truth, wherever the light goes to drive the darkness out. It looks like you (Lee) are off to a good start.”
Lambert comes under fire
MacIntyre took the Lambert public relations firm to task at the Oct. 20 meeting for its monthly charges to the district in June ($9,900) and July ($9,600) for “P. R. services.”
“What are P. R. services?” asked MacIntyre. “What exactly was provided in the months of June and July?”
A Lambert representative, Joe DiBenedetto, managing director and chair of the firm’s Education & Social Impact practice, was summoned before the board from the audience to respond to MacIntyre’s criticisms.
“We provide a variety of services each month,” said DiBenedetto. He specifically listed: “creating a monthly newsletter, monitoring the website and district social media channels, communications from the superintendent’s office to parents.”
‘It’s a variety of communications that we provide to the district in order to keep the community informed about the variety of activities and programs taking place in the schools and across the district,” he said.
MacIntyre noted two glaring errors currently existing at the FCS website: The FCS student count is given as 8,000 when the actual count dropped below 3,000 long ago. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program, currently touted on the FCS website, has not been offered for some three years.
DiBenedetto admitted, “There are some discrepancies that need to be addressed.”
“Those are just two things at a glance I noticed,” MacIntyre responded.
EVM review of FCS website: front page pretty good
A partial review of the FCS website on Oct. 22 revealed that the front page of the FCS website is comparatively well developed with abundant information.
However, the “Superintendent’s Message,” dated June 14, 2021, is authored by Anita Steward who is on leave from the district. “Title IX Compliance” names Cassandra Washington as the district’s executive director of human resources, except that she is no longer an FCS employee.
Perhaps the most thorough information is found under the “Leadership” icon – particularly the ten categories that provide FBOE information.
EVM review of FCS website: school pages not so good
Sparse and inaccurate information characterize the web pages of Flint’s 10 school buildings. Some samples:
- Doyle-Ryder: A link to Doyle-Ryder Elementary featured a personable “Welcome” video by then-Principal Kevelin Jones recorded in 2019. Jones is now the district’s assistant superintendent/interim superintendent.
- Accelerated Learning Academy (ALA): The “Latest News” for ALA featured: “Districtwide School Cancellations” on Aug. 12 and 19; “Student of the Month, Standout Standards, State Standards” were “Coming Soon!”; “Highlights” had no highlights; “Principal’s Corner” was a blank page; “Handbook” was “Coming Soon!”; the link for “Alternative Students/Adult Students” returned the reader to ALA’s vacuous front page; the link from “Registration Criteria for student Entry at Mott Adult High School” provided a plentiful 21 bullet points of information; “Lunchroom Food Menu” calendar had no information; “Bell Schedules” advised “No bell schedule found. Please check back later.”; “Handbook” was “Coming Soon!”; “School Staff” informed visitors “Could not find any faculty or staff.”; a “Parent Forms” link led to an application form for the Mott Adult High School S.T.A.R. program; “School Policies” were “Coming Soon!”; “Directions” linked to a helpful Google map; “Staff Only” page was “not found”; “District Site” returned the reader to the main page of FCS.
- Brownell STEM Academy: Brownell’s “About Us” link featured helpful, up-to-date information in the following categories: “About the School”; “Class Schedule”; “Handbook”; and “Directions.” That was not the case for “Highlights”; “Principals Corner” (Shalonda Byas had moved on to central administration); “Lunchroom”; “School Publications” (lunch menus for February found here); “School Staff”; “Parent Forms”; “School Policies”; “Home”; and “District Site.”
- Southwestern Classical Academy (SCA): The SCA “Principal’s Corner” contained a “Staff Weekly Update” for Oct. 3, 2016. Two of SCA’s pages included a link to the IB program that hasn’t existed for some three years. The “Class Schedule” is for the 2015-16 school year. “Parent Forms” include a Biology Syllabus for the 2013-14 school year.
The websites of the other eight FCS buildings were in similar stages of development, or lack thereof.
Every school’s page, without fail, did feature a helpful Google map to locate the school.
Freeman Elementary appeared to have the most informative and up-to-date site. Nonetheless, many links — “Academics,” “News/Events,” and “Parents” — led to little or no information.
Years in the making
FCS and/or Lambert may contend that development of the district’s website(s) has just gotten underway and needs a bit more time for completion. However, it’s been this reporter’s experience, for nearly six years, that FCS sites have been substantially incomplete and often contain outdated information.
On June 14, 2019, EVM posted the following observation from this reporter: “The average citizen would be hard-pressed to find information about progress toward improved FCS attendance, test scores, and reduced suspension rates. Little information is provided at board of education meetings or on the district’s woefully outdated website.”
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The next meeting of the FBOE is a Committee of the Whole meeting at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at Accelerated Learning Academy, 1602 S. Averill Ave., Flint.
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.