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ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL


July/August 2016

IASB transitions: Office of General Counsel

By Gary Adkins

Gary Adkins is IASB director/editorial services and editor of Illinois School Board News Blog.

The Illinois Association of School Boards’ Office of General Counsel (OGC) requires contributions from many school law experts for its success, and its work in support of IASB member school districts will not miss a beat with the recent retirement of one individual.

True, former IASB General Counsel Melinda Selbee, who retired June 30, had come to personify the office, spearheading most of the OGC’s work through its first 26 years. But, as Selbee said recently, “OGC is not one person, former Assistant General Counsel Kimberly Small and the department’s administrative assistant, Bridget Trojan, collaborated with and helped me on every project in the past 10 years, and we added another terrific attorney in April.”

Insiders say replacing Selbee was a natural progression for Small, mainly because she had dealt with all of the issues and worked on all of the projects and programs of the office for years.

Selbee mentored Small over many months on all the aspects of maintaining continuity in the office. “We planned the transition almost a year in advance. And we developed written standards and tested requirements to ensure that local district benefits and services from the OGC will remain as they have been. Kimberly is such a good lawyer, and so hard working and creative, that I can only see the office getting better,” Selbee said.

Selbee helped hire another experienced, qualified, and industrious attorney to take over Small’s post as assistant general counsel when Small moved to the top job. “ Maryam Brotine is a revelation,” Selbee said, “and the best person for the job.”

Brotine previously worked as a senior associate with the law firm Robbins, Schwartz, Nicholas, Lifton & Taylor, Ltd. in Chicago, where she practiced school law. She started her duties at IASB in mid-April.

“It’s a perfect fit,” said Small. “ Maryam has a wealth of experience in school law and is very aware of the Association’s work with providing policy information and services to school districts. She’s also very experienced in working with all types of people — a critical skill set when working with elected officials.”

Brotine had served with Robbins Schwartz since 2008, focusing in the areas of special education and students’ rights. She counseled and represented school districts with respect to IEP meetings, ISBE complaints, OCR complaints, mediation, due process hearings, residency hearings, student discipline, policy decisions, and FOIA requests.

Brotine has been active in the Illinois Council of School Attorneys and other professional legal organizations, and has been a presenter at that group’s annual seminars and contributor to legal publications.

PRESS and PRESS Plus

As most Illinois school leaders know, PRESS is the legally referenced policy and procedure information and update service IASB provides for local school districts to help ensure compliance with state and federal law, and to incorporate best practices to minimize district legal challenges and   exposure to litigation risk. PRESS, in fact, is the face of the OGC for most school leaders, and was originated under Selbee’s watch.

Selbee said, “Cathy Talbert [ IASB’s associate executive director for field services/policy services and an attorney herself] is still in place at IASB and her contributions to the success of the Policy Reference Education Subscription Service are immense — she is the brains behind the business of policy services and the growth of PRESS subscriptions.”

Talbert’s responsibilities include PRESS subscriptions, policy manual customizations, administrative procedures projects, web-publishing local school board policy manuals, electronic board meetings, and the PRESS Plus service. The latter is a full-maintenance policy update service, based on PRESS, which helps districts keep their policy manuals up-to-date with changes in law, regulations, and local conditions.

Talbert notes that her role and duties have not changed with Selbee’s departure. “I will continue to enjoy working with the entire policy services staff and the OGC to ensure excellence in policy services for our members,” she said.

“Of course, on a personal level we all will greatly miss Melinda and her tremendous sense of fun, creative mind, and commitment to excellence. It has been a privilege working with Melinda over the many years, along with Kimberly and Bridget and the policy staff,” Talbert said.

Recalling how Selbee developed PRESS in 1993 and was PRESS editor until her retirement, PRESS actually began after Selbee wrote a policy encyclopedia in 1992 called the Policy Reference Manual (PRM). A new IASB service based upon it was rolled out a year later with the acronym PRESS, as subscribers began to receive the entire PRM along with periodic updates.

As the Association’s assistant general counsel, Small shared responsibility for the production of the service for more than 10 years, including production of its recommended sample policies, administrative procedures, and the exhibits contained in the quarterly PRESS packets.

Then, as now, the job has entailed creating the “PRESS Highlights Memo” to preface each issue of PRESS, informing subscribers about updates to the PRM and changes in law. Included in the memo is news about changes required by passage of federal and state legislation, and by the promulgation of pertinent regulations, as well as judicial and administrative decisions.

Part of the job as PRESS editor is answering questions from the field concerning PRESS material and its legal components. But, as Small notes, that does not entail giving legal advice.

“Districts are kept up to date by PRESS materials, although we occasionally need to help callers understand what PRESS says or how it fits together with the existing PRM. But we do not give legal advice,” she explained.

Small is proud of the fact that each piece of PRESS material is annotated with citations and the thorough way relevant issues and topics in law and governance are identified and discussed in accompanying footnotes.

“Melinda set a high standard and mentored us well. We will continue to require that each piece of PRESS is legally compliant and consistent with IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance. Each piece of material will always contain legal references and cross references, and updates will continue to be published three to four times a year in separate PRESS publications,” Small said.

ICSA

Writing and publishing PRESS is only part of the job of directing OGC, Small said. Another key responsibility is to continue to facilitate the activities of the Illinois Council of School Attorneys (ICSA) as that organization’s secretary. With more than 250 members, it is the second-largest council of its kind in the nation.

“ICSA is a very collegial, collaborative organization of school attorneys. I believe its success is due to this,” explained Selbee. “In fact, the promotion of collegiality and closeness among its members is one of ICSA’s founding purposes.”

ICSA members all represent public schools or are attorneys employed by an Illinois education management association, the National School Boards Association, or the Illinois State Board of Education. Members have been eager to help each other because they face essentially the same complex legal issues that confront public schools.

“An issue new to one school district may have already been resolved at another district,” Small noted. Evolving issues can be analyzed by multiple legal minds. ICSA provides a means to allow its members to share their knowledge and experiences to better serve its members’ clients.

ICSA also hosts an annual seminar where attendees can hear about other attorneys’ experience with perennial and developing school law issues. Content is informative and insightful. The annual seminar, held on Friday at the Joint Annual Conference in Chicago, has included at least one hour of professional responsibility credit. Presentations traditionally focus on ethics, diversity, and civility.  

“Through these presentations, ICSA members learn about contributing their skills and knowledge to serve the interests of public school districts with dignity, courtesy, and candor,” Selbee explained.

ICSA members also help IASB in countless ways. A visit to the school law page of IASB’s website will show numerous examples. One ICSA committee, for instance, drafted comprehensive special education procedures that are available without charge to all schools. ICSA members also have written Amicus (“friend of the court”) appellate briefs for zero or reduced fees. In these briefs, IASB presents its perspective in litigation on an issue of statewide significance that has public policy implications. Other ICSA committees review or draft publications designed to inform school officials concerning frequently arising legal questions.

The IASB legal staff has also facilitated ICSA guidance on topics including vacancies on the board of education, gift ban, referenda, conflict of interest, and responding to a subpoena, among others.

Several ICSA members are always on the policy advisory board providing feedback on PRESS material. This year, a large group of ICSA members collaborated on the PRESS material implementing legislation that significantly revises student suspension and expulsion procedures. Occasionally, an ICSA member will contribute his or her work product for modification to publish in PRESS.

Selbee said she knows the organization will continue to expand the capacities of the Office of General Counsel under Small’s direction. “It is a big help to OGC, and Kimberly has already made clear her plan to keep it extremely active and thriving.

“Whenever I requested assistance from the organization, I was never turned down. During the legislative session, I often asked ICSA members for help with pending legislation,” Selbee explained.

These requests included presentations on IASB’s Open Meetings Act training, professional development leadership training (PDLT) to school board members, and a variety of panels at the Joint Annual Conference.

“ICSA members have frequently alerted me concerning emerging legal issues or to provide helpful feedback. I am grateful to this group of attorneys who are committed to serving public schools,” Selbee added.

For her part, Small says she looks forward to stepping into her new role with ICSA members, directing the group’s activities and managing its membership, serving as permanent secretary of the ICSA Executive Committee, preparing the ICSA budget, and planning its meetings. She will also be responsible along with Trojan for planning and managing the annual seminar, a task she has already begun for the November gathering. This duty includes ensuring the receipt of continuing legal education credit from the professional Illinois MCLE Board.

Support for others

The General Counsel’s duties also include providing legal analysis and suggestions concerning legislative issues to the IASB governmental relations staff, writing legal curricula for board development’s live and online courses (such as Open Meetings Act training, PERA, PDLT, and bullying), consulting and advising the Illinois State Board of Education and other state agencies, and serving on state and national task forces and workgroups. Much of this work goes on behind the scenes and yet it requires a good deal of time and care.

But more importantly to IASB members, Small’s new responsibilities still include responding to IASB member requests for information, regardless of whether these may be received during workshops, over the telephone, or by email. “Responding to member interests and concerns is a huge part of IASB’s value to its membership,” Small explains.

“Corporate Counsel”

Small also noted that since being named she has begun to increase her involvement with the legal matters typical of corporate counsel, which is the primary, yet less-noticed part of the job. “It’s the part of the job where when things go well, no one notices you’re there, and if things go bad, you’re very visible.” She lists these less-visible responsibilities as follows:

  • Protecting IASB nonprofit status
  • Counsel on Association legal matters
  • Risk management (in-service trainings to IASB departments, personnel matters, contract reviews, intellectual property issues)
  • Managing transactions
  • Contract management
  • And much more

“Because OGC collaborates with all IASB departments and several outside organizations, it’s one of those silent, value-added departments, and it’s crucial that it retains a certain minimum level of excellence and experience to provide continuity for IASB members,” Small said.

As such, Selbee’s retirement presented a unique challenge to IASB, which it is ready to meet as OGC moves forward with Small’s leadership. Small estimates that over the past 10 years, she and Selbee have worked side-by-side over 25,000 hours in total, “Her retirement is bittersweet because it means I won’t get to see Melinda every day at work, yet I’m excited, confident, and ready for these new challenges in my career because she gave me the gift of her mentorship. Her mentorship has definitely ensured a great future for OGC, the Association, its many services, and its members.”

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