Schools pile up millions in legal bills

Consulting with school attorneys is a necessary but unpredictable expense, local school officials say, that can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a single case of employee discipline or a round of union negotiations.

Over the last five years, the 12 school districts in Clark and Champaign counties have spent a combined $3.1 million on legal services, including lawyer bills, costs for hearing officers and liability insurance counsel, according to a Springfield News-Sun analysis.

The largest district in Clark and Champaign counties, Springfield spends the most on legal services, too. In the last school year, the district spent about $277,000 on legal bills.

“This is a $125 million business,” said Springfield City School District Treasurer Chris Mohr. “And legal fees are a part of running a business, period, and certainly one this size. There’s a lot of stuff that happens when you have over 800 people working here and serve 8,800 kids.”

More than half of Tecumseh Local Schools’ $103,000 in legal services expenses in in fiscal year 2012 came from one case of employee termination and the 2011 negotiations with the Tecumseh Education Association, according to public records. The negotiations cost about $38,000; the termination, which was contested by the employee and included a hearing, ran up a legal bill of about $28,000.

“It can get expensive,” said Superintendent Jim Gay. “But not to spend the money on legal expertise in that area, I think, wouldn’t be a prudent thing to do.”

A $28,000 bill is “probably pretty good” in terms of how costly some employee termination cases can get for schools, said Hollie Reedy, chief legal counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association.

Reedy pointed to a case in Mount Vernon, where teacher John Freshwater was terminated for teaching creationism and religious doctrine in his science class. The case started in 2008 and is ongoing, with the Ohio Supreme Court scheduled to hear an appeal.

“Legal fees were over $700,000 and may have gone over that,” said Reedy. “I wouldn’t call that a typical teacher termination, but they can get pretty expensive.”

The fees Clark and Champaign county schools pay each year ranges from $9,000 in smaller districts like Graham to $275,000 in Springfield. But even within the same district, legal spending can vary significantly from year to year.

In fiscal year 2008, Graham Local Schools spent $9,500 on legal services, according to the News-Sun analysis. The next year, the district spent $44,000, a 365 percent increase.

Southeastern’s legal spending jumped 173 percent from $24,000 in fiscal year 2011 to $66,000 in 2012. From 2010 to 2011, spending decreased by just $4.

Negotiations and employee matters are just a couple of the reasons districts need legal advice. Attorneys are also used to handle due process special education disputes, when parents disagree with the school over how to educate students with disabilities; bond issues and levies; grievances and other lawsuits.

Districts often proactively consult with attorneys to make sure they follow federal and state laws governing employment, public entities and education, said the OSBA’s Reedy.

“You’re going to spend less money by calling your lawyer before you do whatever it is you think you want to do than you are afterwards trying to clean up whatever mess you’ve made,” she said.

Springfield schools hopes one of its newest hires, Human Resources Director Stacy Tippler, will reduce legal spending, said Mohr, the treasurer. Tippler is not only experienced in school HR issues, she also has a law degree.

“That should help us reduce legal costs right there, and I’m absolutely positive that it will just simply because she can draw upon her own professional knowledge,” Mohr said.

There are other ways to reduce legal spending. Districts can send out requests for proposals for legal services to compare the costs of using various firms, invest in legal books so staff can look up the laws themselves and hire experienced staff members who are well versed in legal issues that frequently arise, said Mohr.

Districts can also use different firms or attorneys within one firm, depending on the issue at hand, said Reedy.

“You may not need the law firm partner whose name is on the side of the building to do your routine legal work,” she said. “Not everything requires Steve Jobs’ lawyer to do. Not everything is a top level matter. There’s routine legal work that we all deal with.”

Some firms specialize in education law. About 200 lawyers around the state are members of the OSBA’s Ohio Council of School Board Attorneys. But only three firms in the state take on the risks of bond counsel law, leaving schools with few options for that.

For school districts, spending on legal services protects district resources, officials say.

“I just think it’s the prudent thing to do to protect the district and district operations and, really, taxpayers’ investment,” said Gay.