NOTE: The following article only appears in the print version of the News-Gazette; it is duplicated here with express permission of News-Gazette.
Champaign schools net high legal tab ; * Area district has spent $2.5 million since ’97: [All Edition]
DIANE HAAG News-Gazette Staff Writer. News Gazette [Champaign, Ill] 06 Oct 2002: A-1 A-10.
CHAMPAIGN – Over the last five years, Champaign schools have spent from two to five times as much as neighboring districts on lawyers.
Granted, the district has more issues than most, but with the tab now averaging half a million a year, some schoolboard members are targeting the area as one that could be cut.
“We’re going to have to fire teachers to pay lawyers,” board member Nicole Storch said.
More than half of the $2.5 million in legal bills accrued since 1997 has gone toward negotiating a complaint made to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. That complaint escalated to a lawsuit in 2000. A settlement was approved by a federal judge in January.
Even without the money spent on the civil rights complaint, Champaign’s spending is still high when compared to neighboring districts.
Decatur has averaged $200,000 a year, but it had a huge increase when Jesse Jackson visited in 1999-2000 year. Normal spends about $110,000 annually, and Danville and Urbana average about $50,000 or less, according to their business managers.
Last year alone, Champaign spent about $81 per student on lawyers.
“We haven’t been challenged with issues that need to be met with expenditures,” said Dennis Stonewall, business director in Danville. “When you don’t have expenditures, then you’ve got things running pretty well.”
Most districts see a significant spike during negotiation years.
Stonewall credits the district’s positive relationship with its unions, extensive risk management plans and “excellent” special education program for its smaller need for legal consultation.
“We’ve become a school of choice for special needs,” he said. “When you’ve got a program like that, it suggests that you’re not going to be involved with the legal side of things as much.”
Districts call on their lawyers for an assortment of issues, such as real estate, employment disputes, special education hearings or just matters of interpreting state law. Most districts work with one or two firms to get the most expertise possible.
In Champaign’s case, general work is done locally by Flynn, Palmer & Tague Law offices. The Chicago firm Franczek, Sullivan has handled some special education concerns and civil rights work. The district also is responsible for paying the plaintiff’s lawyers, Futterman & Howard of Chicago, as part of the settlement.
“We seem to be contacting them for legitimate reasons – mostly to make sure we don’t do the wrong thing,” interim business manager Bob Arnold said. “School business has gotten so complicated and parents so litigious, it’s forced our hand as administrators to confer with legal counsel quite often.”
Aside from the civil rights issue, the district has faced employee discrimination claims, tax objections, special education hearings and even some criminal liability issues with Brady Smith, the Franklin Middle School dean accused of sexual misconduct with students. Lawyer Patricia Whitten of Franczek Sullivan said the firm also has spent time with new Superintendent Arthur Culver to bring him up to speed on the issues.
“There’s a lot settled, but for central Illinois, (Champaign) has just had more than most,” Whitten said. “It’s not their policies or practices. That’s the way it’s worked out.”
Board member David Sholem said little could be done to drop the fees significantly, except for changing the hourly rate of lawyers. Some of the plaintiff’s attorneys bill at $495 per hour.
Arnold said he thought fees from local counsel were reasonable.
Despite that, Sholem said the issue of overspending is bigger than the lawyers.
“As has been the case with respect to other areas in the district, I don’t believe there’s been much oversight,” he said. “This isn’t just about legal fees, it’s about consultants, overtimes, cellphones and retention of programs” that don’t work.
Sholem said the only fair comparison for Champaign is the Rockford district, which met the same set of plaintiff’s lawyers in its desegregation case. Over 13 years, that district spent about $250 million in court battles and appeals.
“In some sense, we’ve avoided spending millions,” he said.
Some work has been done to try and establish parameters for the lawyers. Board members are still looking for a policy that would limit the number of district personnel that can call the lawyers directly.
Despite what the district spends, board members say it is not enough to justify hiring their own lawyer. Schooldistricts deal with so many aspects of the law it would be hard to find someone who could cover all of it, Storch said.
“We need a law practice with a deep bench that deals with these aspects,” she said. “Do I think we need to pay what we’ve been paying? Absolutely not.”
The good news is that much of the major litigation is settled, and the equity suit is settling into a monitoring phase.
“I expect legal bills will drop,” board member Phil Van Ness said. “There is not the litigation going on. The last two or three years were tremendous, and I don’t expect to be the same.”
|Other districts’ legal fees|