Law & Courts

Advice of Counsel

By Mark Walsh — May 21, 1997 14 min read

Raleigh, N.C.

Ann L. Majestic is running to keep up with a work-week that is starting to outpace her.

With about an hour to go before she attends a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Wake County, N.C., school board, Majestic, a tall woman with light brown hair, is performing her daily balancing act, weighing news of the latest school crises with the tasks at hand.

As the 44-year-old lawyer prepares for the Wake County meeting, she knows that 25 miles away in Durham, another of her school district clients is facing its latest challenge. It has just been discovered that some administrators in the Durham County schools have been working without the proper state certification, which could end up costing the district some of its state aid. The issue has played out in local newspapers for several days, and Majestic has a long meeting in Durham planned for the next day to try to sort things out.

School attorney Ann L. Majestic’s caseload mirrors the myriad legal issues that today’s school districts face.

As she is about to leave her downtown Raleigh office for the board meeting, she gets a phone call from someone in the Durham district. A television station has called to say there’s word that 11 special education lawsuits are about to be filed against the school district.

The reserved Majestic lets out a deep sigh.

To top it all off, she is supposed to go on jury duty this week, but she asks her secretary to call court officials to try to reschedule.

“Use all your charms,” she says.

The lawyer for all 11 families, Frank Johns, is quoted in the Raleigh newspaper a couple of days later saying he “will prove that for years and years [the Durham school system] failed to do what the law has required it to do” in providing a free, appropriate education to his clients. Some of the suits seek thousands of dollars in reimbursement from the district for the parents’ costs of placing their children in private schools.

The Raleigh News & Observer has also talked to Majestic about the lawsuits, and the paper paraphrases her rather safe and general response: Parents and districts often don’t agree on what is an appropriate education, she says, and districts must consider what is “fiscally reasonable to provide.”

It is a brief public exposure for what is likely to translate into hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes work for Majestic and the other school lawyers in the Raleigh firm of Tharrington Smith.

In addition to representing the Wake and Durham county school districts, the two largest in the metropolitan area, the firm is the regular counsel for nine other North Carolina school districts. And it is often hired on an occasional basis by other districts for a one-time legal problem that might be out of the league of that district’s local counsel.

Majestic and her colleagues know full well the increasingly crucial role that lawyers play in school district operations. In most districts these days, there are few school policy or legal issues that don’t require the participation of an attorney. For instance, in Wake County, which includes the city of Raleigh, Majestic attends meetings to advise board members on everything from complex state education laws to Robert’s Rules of Order.

Benjamin J. Ferrara, a Syracuse, N.Y., lawyer who recently finished his term as chairman of the Council of School Attorneys, points out that most school districts used to turn to lawyers for real estate deals, advice on elections, and the rare lawsuit that wasn’t covered by insurance.

“Now, school districts need their services on virtually a daily basis,” he says.

In a new monograph on the subject from the Alexandria,Va.-based National School Boards Association, with which the school attorneys’ group is associated, Ferrara suggests several changes in society and in the legal landscape that have made school lawyers more important figures.

“Parents’ fears for their children’s future translate into increased demands on their schools,” he says. “Employees jockeying for protection or advantage generate their own demands on the system. Being Americans, we often take those demands and resistances to court, or to the legislature for redress.”

He points out that in recent decades, public employees have gained greater legal protections from job discrimination. Students’ rights have expanded through court rulings and federal legislation such as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, first passed in 1975 as the Education of the Handicapped Act.

William Haberl, the superintendent of the Penn-Argyle school district in Pennsylvania, says that in years of work as an assistant principal and principal, he never realized how often a superintendent is in contact with the school district lawyer. Then, he became a superintendent.

There seems to be almost nothing that parents or employees won’t consider suing over, including disputes over whether one student deserved to be valedictorian over another.

“It was a real eye-opener for me,” says Haberl, who is studying the relationship between school boards and their lawyers for his doctoral dissertation at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

All but the largest districts rely on outside firms for legal representation, and school law has become a growing specialty nationwide. Ferrara’s firm represents more than 100 school districts throughout New York state.

School lawyers say they enjoy their frequent contact with educators and children, and the opportunity to help school districts focus on their educational mission.

Karen James, who recently joined the school law team at Tharrington Smith from a Washington law firm, says the corporate law cases she was working on were all starting to look the same.

“So much of that was one corporation suing another over money,” she recalls. “I felt like I was just watching over the transfer of funds.”

Although it’s only one part of the job, defending school districts against litigation is a school lawyer’s most visible role. There seems to be almost nothing that parents or employees won’t consider suing over, including disputes over whether one student deserved to be declared valedictorian over another. In one recent case, a family sued a district because a child was denied permission to go to the bathroom. (The family lost at every stage, but nonetheless appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.)

“There isn’t anybody out there who can’t claim discrimination,” says Majestic. “I do think people are more rights-oriented in recent years. Everyone thinks they have rights, even when they don’t.”

Of course, plaintiffs’ lawyers point out that school officials sometimes run roughshod over the rights of students and workers. It took years of litigation to bring about the desegregation of schools, and it has taken legislation and lawsuits to coax schools to adequately serve the needs of disabled children.

Majestic grew up a Navy brat. She was born in Honolulu, but her family settled in South Carolina and she crossed state lines to attend Duke University in Durham in the early 1970s. It was there, as a student government representative, that she came to know then-Duke President Terry Sanford, a former North Carolina governor (and later a U.S. senator), and Juanita Kreps, a university vice president who later served as secretary of commerce under President Carter.

Her exposure to university officials got her interested in college administration.

“I really wanted to be an administrator, not a scholar,” she says. Majestic helped lobby for federal grants for a Washington-based higher education association, then in 1977 headed to Harvard University’s graduate school of education to earn a master’s degree.

“I went up there and froze my toes off for a year,” she says, then took a job as an academic adviser at the University of Georgia in Athens. She quickly found that she wasn’t satisfied with her career path.

At Georgia, “I was essentially signing up freshmen and sophomores for their classes,” she says.

“In each of [the higher education] jobs, I kind of learned it in two years, and it became predictable and cyclical. … I knew I wanted a career with no limitations and not just a job.”

She sought the advice of Sanford, who encouraged her to go to law school. Majestic says that even during her undergraduate days, while most other student government types were priming themselves for law school, she had no such interest.

“I had really eschewed law,” she says. “But I have an analytical nature. My family sees me as Ann the Arguer.”

At Duke law school, she worked part time in the university counsel’s office and was recruited to Tharrington Smith upon her graduation in 1982. Assigned to the school law section, she found K-12 school issues just as interesting as higher education. “The practice of law fulfilled my urges for variety and interesting subject matter,” she says. “There has never been a boring day.”

Today, Majestic’s office overlooks a pedestrian mall about two blocks from North Carolina’s granite state Capitol building. Forgoing one of Raleigh’s handful of office towers, Tharrington Smith’s three-story quarters are full of plants, gentle waterfalls, and skylights. A few rubber snakes and lizards are placed strategically within the flora-filled decor.

The firm has 20 lawyers, making it small even for Raleigh. It’s best-known partner is Wade M. Smith, a criminal defense lawyer who once represented Jeffrey R. MacDonald, the ex-Green Beret doctor convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and two daughters. The case was made famous by the Joe McGinniss book Fatal Vision.

Recent years have not been kind to the Durham County schools, legally speaking.

About half the firm’s lawyers devote all or most of their time to school district clients. Majestic says she has been more or less in charge of the education practice since the death last year of George Rogister, who initiated the firm’s involvement in school law and was the first counsel to the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Majestic’s caseload is a window on the legal issues school districts face every day. It includes disputes over special education, parents’ requests for reassignment of their children to other schools, employment discrimination complaints, and concerns brought up under relatively recent federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

And, although the 86,000-student Wake County and the 29,000-student Durham County districts keep her firm the busiest, the range of regular and one-time clients yields every conceivable school law issue.

Majestic personally attends most school board meetings in Wake and Durham counties. These days, she also spends a lot of her time attending special education hearings, which increasingly can drag on for days or even weeks.

If parents plan to have a lawyer present at special education hearings or student discipline proceedings, then the school district usually likes to have its lawyer there, too, Majestic says. “Parents are even bringing lawyers to [school] reassignment meetings,” she adds. All this means that she attends a lot of meetings.

Ruth T. Dowling, an associate who works in the school law section of Tharrington Smith, says Majestic is one of the most thorough lawyers she has worked with.

“She just has every base covered,” Dowling says. “In interviews with clients or witnesses, she will think of 10 or 15 questions that just didn’t occur to me.”

One recent special education hearing lasted a full month, with experts flown in from California to testify on behalf of parents, Majestic says. She is working with other lawyers on proposed changes to the state law that implements the federal special education statute in hopes of making the hearing process less burdensome.

“Right now, we essentially have a full-blown trial at the first hearing” over special education disputes, she says. “It creates these monstrous, expensive cases. I don’t even know how the parents handle it.”

Recent years have not been kind to the Durham County schools, legally speaking. The district has been sued over its merger of formerly separate city and county school systems, over a student reassignment plan stemming from the merger, and over the discipline of a student who brought a gun to school.

Now, racial tensions are bubbling to the surface in Durham, where school board members recently voted 4-3 along racial lines to hire a white woman as superintendent over another candidate who is black.

Previously, a group of white voters had challenged the merger of the separate Durham city and county school systems. The group failed to stop new school board elections from taking place last year, but still pending are challenges to the merger-related student-assignment plan. The firm has filed a motion in federal court to dismiss the suit, arguing that the white plaintiffs lack legal standing to bring the claim.

Kathryn Meyers, the chairwoman of the Durham County school board, said the board has felt besieged by crises recently and she admits she sometimes wonders whether the school attorney could do more to prevent them. “We really only hear about [problems] when things crash and burn. And then everyone is in reactionary mode, including the attorney,” Meyers says.

Majestic admits that she wished she had anticipated Durham’s current problem with administrator state certification. “I wish I had discovered it sooner,” she said. “It was something I didn’t double-check on the administration. ... I wasn’t asked to, but I have to think about things like that.”

'[Ann L. Majestic] is an excellent advocate. But when she wants to play hardball, she can play hardball.’

Tom Stern
Chapel Hill, N.C.

In recent years, the Wake County district has faced lawsuits over a police undercover drug sting in the high schools and the shooting death of a high school student in an afterschool melee in a public park.

The Wake County schools spend about $460,000 a year on legal services, out of a general fund budget of $480 million, says Jim Suratt, the district superintendent. He says Majestic’s know-how came in handy in helping draft a waiver form for parents to allow school officials to discuss publicly their children’s educational records. The waiver was Suratt’s response to parents who run to the media when their children are disciplined in school. Parents usually don’t sign it, but that means the district can’t be blamed for not talking about the case.

One of the most serious lawsuits against the district stemmed from a 1993 incident in which a high school student was shot after school in a city park. The student, Bryan Greene of Millbrook High School, had gathered with others in a Raleigh park one afternoon to watch what court papers called a “typical teenage fight.” However, a bystander who jumped into the fight pulled a gun, firing first into the air, then into the fleeing crowd. Greene was shot in the heart and died at the scene.

His family sued the Wake County schools for wrongful death, arguing that school officials knew or should have known that trouble was brewing.

In court papers, lawyers from Tharrington Smith said the school system had enacted strict policies to deal with school violence, but school officials “cannot prevent students from taking dangerous risks when they are away from school. … Nor can they prevent the kind of unexpected criminal actions which turned a fistfight into a multiple shooting of innocent bystanders.”

A Wake County trial judge agreed with the school district and its lawyers and dismissed the wrongful death suit in 1995.

More mundane is the legal work involved in disciplining or terminating teachers and other school employees. North Carolina law does not permit collective bargaining with school districts, but teachers have tenure rights.

Tom Stern, a Chapel Hill, N.C., lawyer who represents the North Carolina Association of Educators, has dealt with Majestic as an adversary for years in employment hearings and related matters.

“She is extremely smart,” he says. “She is an excellent advocate. But when she wants to play hardball, she can play hardball.”

Stern says there are times when Majestic “just can’t be budged from her position.” But, he adds, she is usually looking out for the best way to resolve a legal problem for the good of the school system, even if that means giving in a little to the other side. “If there is a solution that can avoid litigation, she is good at figuring it out,” Stern says.

Back at the Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Wake County school board, Majestic sits at one end of the horseshoe-shaped board desk in a sleek wood-paneled meeting room.

The board members breeze through their agenda, stopping briefly to ask Majestic a question or two about a new contract for transportation of children in the school system’s special education programs. Then, the board goes behind closed doors for an executive session.

Majestic lingers outside for a few minutes to phone her office about the Durham special education lawsuits. She wonders what time she will get home to her husband, Hank, a clinical psychologist, and her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

Suddenly, a school official pops out of the executive session to track her down.

“Excuse me, Ann, but your board could probably use you,” he says. “They’re onto a hot one.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 1997 edition of Education Week


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