Archive for Wednesday, June 21, 2000

District looks to cut spending on legal affairs

June 21, 2000

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Lawrence school administrators are preparing to slam a gavel on the district's legal costs.

With the public school district struggling to draft a balanced budget for 2000-2001, Interim Supt. Randy Weseman identified legal services as a target for future spending reductions.

"We call our attorney way too much," Weseman said. "We're definitely going to look at legal services as a way to cut costs."

The district contracts with Stevens & Brand law firm of Lawrence. One of the firm's attorneys, Peter Curran, has been involved with Lawrence school district legal affairs for 34 years. His work encompasses personnel, contracts, litigation and general legal advice.

"I do whatever they ask and try to give them the best quality service I can," Curran said.

In the current budget year, which ends June 30, the school board set aside $55,000 for legal fees. About $40,000 had been spent by May 1.

Weseman proposed cutting $1,700 from next fiscal year's legal services budget and expressed willingness to cut deeper in the future.

Weseman said the district should rely more on lawyers with the Kansas Association of School Boards. KASB offers counsel to member school districts for an annual fee of $900. The Lawrence school board recently voted to renew its membership in KASB's legal assistance fund.

"That should be the first stop," Weseman said.

KASB employs five full-time attorneys devoted to issues local boards of education encounter.

Donna Whiteman, KASB assistant executive director for legal services, said the association was especially useful when providing districts with assistance on student discipline, special education and employment disputes. KASB staff keep track of state and federal court decisions as well as legislative rules and regulations important to districts.

KASB lawyers sometimes do represent districts in court, charging $100 hourly. But, Whiteman said, local law firms handle the bulk of school district litigation.

In Lawrence, it might be to the district's advantage to deploy Curran for litigation. He charges $85 an hour.

"We don't have the staff to represent all the districts in contested litigation," Whiteman said. "We can't do all the school law in the state."

Whiteman said a budget of $55,000 for legal services didn't sound unreasonable for a district with 10,500 students.

Legal costs for public schools have been creeping up in recent years, she said. Public school districts of all sizes in Kansas must employ lawyers to respond to the barrage of lawsuits.

"They are the target of numerous challenges," Whiteman said. "School districts are seen as having deep pockets."

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