OPS shakes up legal services team - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 9:42 am
OPS shakes up legal services team

The Omaha school district is changing its approach to outside legal services, including who will be the district's lead attorney.

The changes come after a long-standing debate over how much the district spends on legal counsel and after recent controversies that have had the footprints of attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda, who has helped advise the Omaha Public Schools since at least 2001.

Interim Superintendent Virginia Moon said the change is part of a broader review of how OPS uses legal services, so the district can rely less on Baird Holm attorneys and more on district employees.

The moves and a new retainer agreement with Baird Holm should help the district significantly reduce its legal costs, Moon said.

See the new retainer agreement (PDF).

In recent years, OPS has paid as much as $3.9 million in one year for the outside attorneys. Other urban districts often spend far less by hiring their own lawyers.

Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda

“We'd become very dependent on legal services,” Moon said. “We need to be more conservative.”

Eynon-Kokrda will continue to help OPS for Baird Holm, the district's longtime law firm, but she will no longer be the lead lawyer. David Kramer, another Baird Holm attorney, will succeed her as the district's lead attorney. He updated the board at its meeting last week.

Kramer has previously worked with OPS. He advised the district on legal matters in the mid-1990s, and in 1999 he led an effort to pass a major school bond issue. He also recently served on the board of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority.

Baird Holm removed Eynon-Kokrda from the position after months of discussion with OPS officials on how to better serve OPS. In interviews, Kramer, Moon and board President Marian Fey all declined to say exactly why Eynon-Kokrda was replaced.

For too many years, Moon said, the district has been too quick to involve outside attorneys, and, lately, Eynon-Kokrda.

For instance, she said, Eynon-Kokrda or other attorneys were sometimes involved during the planning phases of various district committees.

District employees could have updated the attorney periodically, she said. “You don't need them at every step of the way,” Moon said.

She suggested the district grew dependent on lawyers as OPS signed on to more litigation over the past decade.

OPS has been involved in a number of highly controversial matters involving lawyers, including in 2003 when it and other districts challenged the constitutionality of the state's school finance system, and in 2005, when OPS tried to take over schools and land from Millard, Ralston and Elkhorn districts.

The new arrangement also should save costs by cutting out the middle person.

In recent years, Moon said, all legal requests have gone through Eynon-Kokrda, the district's lead attorney. The district also paid her to sort and assign the requests.

Now, when the OPS assistant superintendent for human resources calls Baird Holm, she will call its human resources expert, not the lead attorney.

“We sort of began to depend on Elizabeth's expertise as an education attorney when, in reality, the legal services we use on a regular basis aren't necessarily related to school law,” Moon said. “The role of the lead attorney will be diminished.”

Moon stressed that generally only OPS assistant superintendents can ask Baird Holm for help, and unless it's routine, they also should notify her.

In December, Richard Putnam, Baird Holm managing partner, met with the board in closed session, without Eynon-Kokrda. Putnam also has met with Moon several times, Kramer said, as well as with OPS assistant superintendents.

Also in December, the board approved a retainer agreement with Baird Holm that details the rates OPS pays for specific services. Under the agreement, OPS is to pay Baird Holm $11,500 a month for all work related to the following issues: attending board meetings; reviewing legislation and current laws and regulations; phone calls about day-to-day school law issues; advice on general school matters; and drafting or reviewing simple contracts.

OPS will pay an hourly rate for other things.

Previously the district had been paying an hourly rate for everything, including the most mundane tasks, such as an attorney watching and recording votes at a board committee meeting.

Eynon-Kokrda's departure from the lead OPS role ends a term that has sometimes been embroiled in controversy.

Last July, Eynon-Kokrda and former board president Freddie Gray were criticized for how they handled the Nancy Sebring situation. Eynon-Kokrda and Gray did not tell board members after learning that Sebring, then OPS's superintendent-to-be, had resigned her previous job for exchanging racy emails on a school computer.

The two said Sebring minimized what she had done, so they did not feel the need to share what they knew or to launch an investigation to find out more about the emails.

They also said they kept information from board members to preserve their impartiality should they have had to eventually consider firing Sebring.

Gray resigned from the board last month; she said a new job would not allow her to effectively perform her board duties.

Ernie Chambers of Omaha had filed a grievance against Eynon-Kokrda with the Nebraska Supreme Court, contending she had violated professional conduct rules in how she handled the Sebring situation. Eynon-Kokrda was cleared in October of any ethical wrongdoing.

After a former OPS middle school teacher was charged in May 2011 with three felony counts of third-degree sexual assault of a child, the district came under fire for how it had handled initial complaints.

The charges stemmed from allegations against the then-teacher made by three female students, in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Police, however, began investigating only after a parent contacted state officials in October 2010. OPS officials said they interpreted the law as giving them leeway to initiate their own investigation to determine if reasonable cause existed before calling police.

That position was defended by Eynon-Kokrda.

But the OPS board later changed its sexual-abuse reporting policy to state that an employee must alert law enforcement authorities within 24 hours after a student alleges sexual misconduct by teachers or staff members. After an investigation and the policy change, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declined to charge any OPS employees with failing to report alleged sexual abuse of students.

Eynon-Kokrda could not be reached for comment last week for this story.

Contact the writer: jonathon.braden@owh.com, 402-444-1074, twitter.com/jonathonbraden

Contact the writer: Jonathon Braden

jonathon.braden@owh.com    |   402-444-1074    |  

Jonathon writes about education, mostly the Omaha Public Schools, Nebraska's largest district.

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