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MCS appoints legal counsel to assist with agreement between district, tribe

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MASSENA - The Massena Central School District has appointed a new legal counsel to assist them with an agreement between the district and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Kathy A. Ahearn from the law offices of Guercio and Guercio LLP, Latham, will be paid $175 per hour for her services, according to Interim Superintendent William W. Crist.

“We need to renegotiate an agreement between the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe for providing special education services for Native Americans,” Mr. Crist said fafter this week’s board of education meeting in which board members approved the appointment.

Her rate, he said, is $20 less than the district is paying for their regular counsel.

“I have an hourly rate that was very competitive,” he said.

He noted that Ms. Ahearn also serves as the legal counsel for the Salmon River Central School District, giving her a familiarity with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and area schools.

“She has actually worked closely with the Salmon River district and is presently their counsel,” he said, noting Ms. Ahearn had negotiated and renegotiated similar contracts between that district and the tribe.

“She came highly recommended by the superintendent at Salmon River. She recently completed negotiations for Salmon River School,” Mr. Crist said.

As an added benefit, the two schools could split the costs of any visits made by Ms. Ahearn to the area, he said.

“If she had to come up here, she would split the difference and bill each respective school,” he said.

Because federal aid is involved, Evelyn Fiske, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said the Massena Central School Central School District and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe together sign a contract with New York state.

“All three parties typically have needs. I believe this lawyer just navigated this contract with Salmon River,” she said.

Mr. Crist noted that Ms. Ahearn, who joined her current lawn firm as a partner in July 2009, served for 16 years as counsel and deputy commissioner for legal affairs for the New York state Education Department. She served as chief legal advisor to the education commissioner, New York state Board of Regents and state Education Department during her tenure there, he said.

In that capacity, she provided legal counsel in the areas of K-12 public and private education, colleges and universities, vocational education and services for adults with disabilities, the licensing and regulation of 48 professions, and cultural education, including libraries, museums and historical associations.

Ms. Ahearn also served as acting commissioner of education and chief of staff to the commissioner of education.

Her areas of practice include education law, municipal law and special education law. She is a member of the New York state Bar Association and serves on the boards of the New York state Association of School Attorneys and the Capital District Center for the Arts.

“She has a significant background with the state Education Department,” Mr. Crist said.

“She already has experience,” board President John R. Boyce said.

Some board members, however, had concerns about the language in the resolution that appoints Ms. Ahearn to assist the district with legal matters as needed.

“I think the resolution is appropriate as it reads,” Mr. Crist said, noting he had checked with the district’s regular legal counsel “just so I wasn’t stepping on any of their legal toes.”

He told board members that, by changing the language, it might tie Ms. Ahearn’s hands in some cases.

“I maintain that if you constrain the amount of work she can do by resolution, then in some cases that will tie her hands,” Mr. Crist said.

He said, for instance, that if he had a question regarding something other than Native American negotiations “for all intents and purposes, she can’t answer that. I think that would be an unfortunate use of an attorney who again is charging us $20 less than our regular attorney.”

Board member Loren Fountaine said he didn’t want to get into a situation where district officials would call an attorney, not get the answer they wanted and call another one of their attorneys.

But Mr. Crist said that would not happen.

“I think that’s a dangerous precedent to call an attorney to get the answer that you like instead of the answer that you need to hear,” he said.

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