KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — The Knox County Board of Education approved a measure Wednesday night to hire an outside attorney to advise the county law department in the ongoing legal battle over school mask mandates.
The mandate was suspended last month after parents asked a federal judge to amend his order based on the most recent COVID-19 prevention guidelines from the CDC as the lawsuit awaits oral arguments in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on May 4.
The parents who originally sued the school system agreed the mask mandate they fought to reimplement in schools should be lifted, at least as long as COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county remain below the CDC's highest level of community threat. KCS promptly lifted the mandate after the judge revised his order in March.
Even though the mandate is suspended, the lawsuit remains active. The school board voted Wednesday 5-2 to approve a measure to authorize the law department to hire attorney D. Scott Bennett to advise and assist with "all matters regarding the mask mandate litigation." Two members abstained from voting.
Bennett would not be directly involved with fighting the lawsuit in court but would be paid $350 an hour for outside counsel. Law Director Gary Dupler said his "guesstimate" on how much this would cost the county: about $10,000 to $20,000. He said that could "go up considerably" depending on how long it takes to resolve the case.
One of the board members who voted against hiring Bennett, Betsy Henderson, questioned his track record.
The school board said Bennett was the only candidate that was brought in front of them for consideration. Knox County Law Director David Buuck made the recommendation to the school board, saying "one would be hard-pressed to find an attorney better qualified or more suited" due to his specialties in education and disability law.