Excerpt from School Law’s Evaluation – Reflections of a Texas Lawyer
By Kelly Frels © 2019
Lawyers who represented Texas school districts in the 1970’s were looking for an organization through which they could network, but the school lawyer leadership did not want to organize through the Texas Association of School Boards (“TASB”). The TASB was perceived as having too narrow a focus and being too controlling. A professional alternative was sought, and it was achieved by school district lawyers becoming a standing committee of the State Bar of Texas. Once the membership became large enough, the State Bar rules provided that the committee could evolve into a section.
The organizational meetings of the School Law Committee were called by Cecil Morgan in 1971. These meetings were held at Warren Whitham’s and Franklin Spafford’s Dallas offices in the Adolphus Hotel Building. The invitees were the lawyers for the major school districts who had met through a late 1960’s lawsuit in Fort Worth federal court against the state of Texas over the calculation of property values by the state that adversely affected the amount of state money that flowed to urban districts. The urban districts kept their property values higher than rural districts and were correspondingly penalized when state funds were distributed based upon taxable values. The suit was ultimately dismissed after the Peveto Committee of the Texas House of Representatives made its report on appraisal practices and the legislature took corrective action to better equalize property values across the state for tax purposes. The Peveto Report resulted in the creation of county-wide appraisal districts and the State Property Tax Board.
Cecil Morgan of Fort Worth, Warren Whitham of Dallas, Ralph Langley of San Antonio, Grant Cook of Houston, Morris A. Galatzan of El Paso, and Harry Patterson of Bracewell were invited to the Dallas meeting. Harry Patterson was in Alice bird hunting on the day of the first meeting, so he sent me in his place. Bylaws were written, and after approval by the State Bar Board of Directors, the group became organized as the School Law Committee of the State Bar of Texas. The initial annual dues were set at $3.00. Cecil Morgan, the Dean of Texas school law, served as the first Chair of the School Law Committee. The initial membership of the School Law Committee was exclusively school district attorneys, and the Committee’s first seminar was presented at the State Bar’s 1972 Annual Meeting in Houston.
A significant meeting that solidified the section’s membership was held at the Executive Inn (now a Doubletree) at Dallas’ Love Field to discuss the implementation of the 1973 Open Meetings Act and the legality of school districts purchasing liability insurance. It was at this meeting that Warren Whitham presented a draft of a sample meeting notice with a process for complying with the newly enacted Open Meetings Act. (Versions of Warren’s original notices continue to be used by school districts and other governmental entities today.) By 1974, the Section had 236 members. Each of the founders, Cecil Morgan, Warren Whitham, Ralph Langley, Grant Cook, Morris Galatzan, and I served as the Chair of the School Law Section. A list of everyone who has served as Chair of the School Law Section is listed on Appendix-C.
Early additions to the group that created the Section included: J. W. Gary of Corpus Christi, Tanner Hunt of Beaumont, Bob Cox of Odessa, Rick Peebles of Baytown, Bill Bingham and Bill Bednar of Austin, Jim Deatherage of Irving, Paul Lyle of Plainview, Don Dean of Amarillo, Sam Sparks (now a U.S. District Judge), and Bud Null of Victoria.
In 1974 and 1977, the School Law Section hosted receptions for the attorneys attending the National School Boards Association’s Council of School Attorneys annual seminars in Houston. In 1978, attorneys representing school districts created the Council of School Attorneys which was affiliated with the Texas Association of School Boards and the National School Boards Association.
The establishment of the Council of School Attorneys as a school boards’ advocacy organization could have spelled the end of the School Law Section, but it did not. Jim Deatherage of Irving, Bill Bednar of Austin, and I led an effort to ensure the continued viability of the Section by recruiting lawyers for Section membership who did not represent school districts but instead represented plaintiffs and employee organizations. As these new members became actively involved in the Section’s leadership, the Section’s future as a non-advocacy information sharing and networking organization on the model of the National Organization on Legal Problems in Education (now the Education Law Association) was solidified. Jay Brim of Austin, Neal Adams of Bedford, Karen Johnson, Jeri Stone and Lonnie Hollingsworth of Austin, were early leaders from the non-school district school practice. The Section is now a vehicle through which lawyers who represent diverse and different interests find common ground to discuss education law issues.
In the late to mid-1980’s, probably 1985 or 1986, at a State Bar of Texas annual meeting in Dallas, Section Chair Charles Thompson from Atlanta, pointed out that the Section had a lot of money in the bank and was not doing anything with it. Jay Brim, Janet Horton, Rick Peebles, Karen Johnson, Tom Garner, Merri Schneider-Vogel and others suggested that the Section might consider a summer retreat at a resort location and invite families. The proposal developed legs, and the first School Law Section retreat was held at Tapatio Springs west of San Antonio near Boerne. The retreat featured a Friday and Saturday morning seminar for continuing legal education purposes with a golf tournament on Friday afternoon. Friday night included a communal dinner of lawyers and their families. The Section picked up the common costs and the attendees paid for their travel, housing, green fees and incidental expenses. The event was an instant success, and it has been the centerpiece for the development of the camaraderie among practitioners from all sectors of education law for which the Section is recognized.
University of Texas graduate Tom Garner and Texas A&M former student Neil Adams had a contentious case in Port Lavaca which initially did little for building their personal relationship. With a little outside mediation I provided at Tom’s request and their diligence to serve their respective clients, the matter was resolved and the two became great friends. (I grew up in Lolita, a community about 18 miles from Port Lavaca.) Although I knew Tom well, my involvement in the mediation was my first meeting with Neal. As the years passed, both Tom and Neil served as chairs of the School Law Section, and each thought he was the better golfer. With Tom’s death, the section’s golf tournament was named the Tom Garner Memorial Golf Tournament.
In 2012, Neal Adams and Janet Horton put forth a proposal to recognize school law practitioners for their lifetime achievement. The first was given in 2012, and with humility it was dubbed the “Kelly Frels Lifetime Achievement Award.” Jay Brim, Dorcas Green, Bill Bednar, Neal Adams, Janet Horton, Jim Walsh, and David Thompson have received the Award. The Dean of the School Law Section, Cecil Morgan, and past chair, Tom Garner, have been given the Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously. The School Law Section now has over 600 members and is governed by an executive committee whose membership represents all areas of the state and reflects the practice diversity of the section’s membership. The section continues to conduct its annual seminar retreat each summer at resort locations in San Antonio, Austin and Galveston where families are welcome. The Section also publishes a newsletter and periodically sponsors other seminars. Besides my serving as Chair of the School Law Section in 1980-82, Bracewell partners Jeff Horner, Janet Horton, Lisa Brown, Merri Schneider-Vogel and Lynn Rossi Scott have served in that role. Bracewell’s former associate Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, now general counsel at HISD has also served as Chair.