The decline in legal bills for the Omaha Public Schools is encouraging news, as every dollar spent on lawyers is a dollar that can’t go toward educating kids.
OPS is on track to spend less on legal services this year than in any year since 2001-02. Spending will be well below the $4.38 million in 2005-06, when OPS was involved in legal controversies — a challenge to the state’s school funding system and a bid to take over suburban schools and land.
But as previous World-Herald reporting found, even half that amount, the $2.1 million spent on lawyers in 2010-11, would have been enough to pay 42 teachers or the district’s bill for new textbooks.
The $1.4 million in legal fees projected for the budget year ending Aug. 31 is real money. And it’s more than some larger districts pay.
Denver’s school district, for example, serves nearly 34,000 more students than the 50,000 attending OPS, yet it expects to spend $1.17 million on legal services. Per student, Denver will spend about $14, while OPS will spend about $28.
The Omaha school board and interim superintendent Virginia Moon have recognized the importance of addressing this issue and are working on ways to save on legal fees.
World-Herald staff writer Jonathon Braden reported that Moon asked department heads to review legal fees monthly and to make sure proper procedures are followed for seeking legal advice. OPS employees have been trained in handling routine matters that previously might have led to a phone call to the district’s longtime outside law firm, Baird Holm.
OPS has a new retainer agreement with the firm, paying it $11,500 a month for all work related to attending school 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. That saved about $73,000 from January through May.
Moon says she expects costs to continue to drop. The district incurred extra legal expenses with this year’s change in state law that shrunk the Omaha school board from 12 members to nine, plus the hiring of a new superintendent.
There is no way to eliminate legal costs, obviously. These are litigious times, and the school district was a defendant in 52 ongoing lawsuits in May.
One step worth examining is hiring in-house legal help. While the Denver school district does use outside legal counsel to handle some matters, Braden reported, much of its legal work is done by five on-staff lawyers and three assistants.
For OPS, $1.4 million could hire a lot of staff lawyers. Not that the district would need that many, but it’s enough to give 14 attorneys $100,000 a year each, more than the Nebraska attorney general’s salary of $95,000. The district conceivably could hire an in-house lawyer or lawyers, set aside money for outside help when needed and still see costs go down.
Fortunately for taxpayers, legal expenses are on the OPS board’s radar.
President Justin Wayne says the board is taking a hard look at the issue. It plans to consider hiring a staff attorney and seeking new bids for the district’s legal services, he said.
Those could be prudent steps toward reducing the money going someplace other than to the education of OPS students.