Lower Merion schools' PR problems: Lawyers, taxes . . . and sushi?

Lawyer Arthur Wolk (inset), says he may sue the law firm that defended the Lower Merion School District against his suit for charging too much.

The Lower Merion School District has hired a public-relations firm to provide damage control after a Montgomery County judge said the district needed to rescind its latest 4.4 percent tax increase and enact a lower amount.

The lawyer who brought the suit, Arthur Wolk, now says he may sue the law firm that defended the district against his suit, saying it charged too much. And he said it is "absurd" to spend even more money - $170 an hour - on the public-relations firm, which the district hired this month.

And don't even get him started on the sushi served to students every Thursday in the two high school cafeterias.

"The more we get into this, the more we realize how excessive the district has been on every level," said Wolk, whose suit led Montgomery County Judge Joseph Smyth to rule that the district misled taxpayers for years by claiming it needed to raise taxes to balance its budget while accumulating $55 million in surplus accounts.

The district maintains the tax increases were lawful, since they were approved by the state Department of Education. The judge's order is on hold as Lower Merion challenges it. A hearing is scheduled for December.

Wolk, an air-crash attorney, and Stephen Gleason, who joined him in the suit, have been bombarding the school district with critiques of its spending. Last week, Wolk fired off a news release criticizing the $47,918 Lower Merion spent on sushi between November 2015 and August 2016.

District spokesman Doug Young responded to the sushi slam by pointing out the school meal programs are not subsidized by taxpayers.

"Our school cafeterias operate as a business. The food service program is self-sufficient, with revenues directly funding operations. Sushi is not provided for free, nor is it subsidized by taxpayers," he said. " 'Sushi Thursdays' are in fact the biggest revenue-generating days for the district's cafeterias."

Wolk said he doesn't believe "one word" of that claim. He recalled eating franks and beans while attending Northeast High School and thinks Lower Merion students should do the same.

Meanwhile, Gleason raised questions at a recent school board meeting about the district's fees to the Wisler Pearlstine law firm, which he said totaled more than $820,000 for the last 12 months.

Kenneth A. Roos, the district's solicitor and a partner in the firm, said the total was closer to $765,000, which he conceded was higher than most districts' because of litigation over issues such as special education and assessment appeals.

Roos said his firm also defended the district in Wolk's case but the fees were paid by its insurer after a $15,000 deductible. The district is paying $495 an hour to another firm to handle the appeal.

"We're going to fight this," said School Board President Robin Vann Lynch. "We feel we're well within our rights to fight this."

The public-relations firm, Communications Solutions Group Inc. of Jenkintown, was needed because the lawsuit has taken up so much of administrators' time that they needed the support, she said. The consultants will help with other issues, such as informing the public about planned school expansions, she said.

"We are inundated regularly by Wolk and Gleason," said Vann Lynch. "We feel obliged to provide the community with the full story."

As for sushi at the high schools, she is all for it. "I actually prefer my kids to eat sushi rather than hamburgers or hot dogs. Two of my kids are athletes and they love sushi day," Vann Lynch said.

But with all the issues facing the school district, she added, "I'm not quite sure how we got on sushi."

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella