Nick Sojka was always destined to become a school board attorney though he did not always know it.
Sojka started his legal career at the Parker Poe law firm in 1987. One of the named partners, William E. Poe, was the chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education during the contentious Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case that led to integration in the school system.
“It was sort of ironic. I was doing construction litigation, which I thoroughly enjoyed,” Sojka said. “But at the same time I was being exposed to really high-level conversations about local school governance and education issues in North Carolina.”
Coincidentally, the woman who Nick would marry grew up in Charlotte, and one of her classmates in elementary school was James Swann, the “Swann” of the court case.
Sojka remembers carrying Mr. Poe’s briefcase back and forth to the courthouse and learning the history of the Swann case on their walks.
It was not until Sojka moved to Laurinburg in 1993 that he finally got his chance to work with school boards. He joined the firm now called Williamson, Dean, Williamson & Sojka, L.L.P. Partners in the firm had roles as school board attorneys, and they started to retire, Sojka moved into the position of representing Scotland County Schools.
“Part of it was looking to develop a practice niche in a new community, in a relatively small community,” he said. “But also it was something that I found from the beginning that I enjoyed immensely, because I enjoyed working with educators so much.”
The experience started Sojka’s journey that led him to his current role: school board attorney for Scotland County, Hoke County and Clinton City Schools. His colleagues in Hoke County were so impressed with his work that they nominated him for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s Champion for Student Success Award. He was presented with the award this week.
Becoming a school board attorney was an eye-opening experience, Sojka said.
“Except for being a student myself, I had just never gotten down and had any real understanding of what those folks did day to day,” he said.
Today he covers all manner of legal matters for the school districts he represents — everything from real estate and contract law to student and special education issues.
“It’s something that touches a lot of different areas of the law, and it does afford me, in my practice and representing a number of systems, it still allows me opportunities to get into the courtroom from time to time and try cases which I enjoy a lot,” he said.
When he thinks back on what makes him most proud as a school board attorney, Sojka recalls two matters he handled for the Scotland County Board of Education in a dispute with the county commissioners over school funding.
The county had a detailed statute that dictated how such matters were to be resolved. It begins with mediation, and if unsuccessful, the parties move to litigation.
“I felt like we had excellent preparation in very limited periods of time, and the school board presented its case very well in what’s called the initial public meeting in that dispute resolution process,” he said. “And in fact, I think presented its case so well, and we had such good mediators in both cases, that both of them were resolved in day long meetings at the very beginning of the process.”
Resolving the cases so early meant that uncertainty did not linger over the community or the school system, and he said the end result was beneficial for all parties involved.
As for the award he received yesterday, Sojka said he owes it all to the people with whom he has worked.
“Whatever good that I’ve done trying to support school children and public education is a direct result of the inspiration that those folks give me, because they are just an incredible group,” he said.
And while he didn’t get into law with the goal of becoming a school board attorney, he said the role has benefits.
“Being an education lawyer … from time to time, you get that immediate gratification of feeling like you’ve really helped a principal or a teacher though a rough spot, and sometimes you even have time to spend with little kids who appreciate you being there,” he said.