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Legal fees for Spokane Public Schools not apparent in the budget

Note from Laurie Rogers:

Did you know there is an association in Washington State for the lawyers of school districts?

Washington State isn't alone. Do an Internet search for "association of lawyers for school districts" and you'll see that this is a common practice in the country. There also is a National Council for School Attorneys, made up of state councils of attorneys.

Councils within councilsAll funded by taxpayers. All for the kiddoes, of course.

All of these legal associations alone should tell you how much money, power and influence there is in education -- with the people who are supposed to spend their days educating our children.

Legal fees for Spokane Public Schools are not obvious in budgets that are released to the public and provided to state agencies. We see no line item for legal fees.

I didn't find out where legal fees are located until a citizen asked the school district in 2012 why the school board budget was so high - nearly $1 million. It's because that's where they put some of the legal fees, along with election and auditing costs.

At one of the district's 2012 budget forums, board director Bob Douthitt, then president of the board, told me the district doesn’t have time for this type of public disclosure, that expenditure detail was just a “quirky little thing” that I wanted, and if I got it, it would only make four or five of my friends happy.

“It isn’t going to happen,” he stated.

Well, sure it's going to happen -- assuming someone in the public makes it happen. We, the people always have the constitutional and moral right to obtain that kind of disclosure from our government agencies. At this point in time, we still cling to the legal right.

Legal fees cost Spokane Public Schools a great number of taxpayer dollars each year. The public should know how much it is. The school district pays several legal firms and independent lawyers in Spokane to represent its interests.

Try to find a lawyer or legal firm in Spokane to represent a case that opposes the school district in some way. It can be done, I'm sure, but a local lawyer and I were not able to do it.

It isn't that all of the lawyers are taken; it's that some are taken; some would like to be taken; and some don't want to be seen as aligning with anyone against the district. I'm sure there are other reasons; the net effect is the same.

My lawsuit against the school district over a 2011 public records request was capably represented by Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle lawyer. No one in Spokane who was contacted about that case would take it. In my view, this was a slam-dunk case -- so clearly in my favor that Ms. Earl-Hubbard chose to take the case on contingency.

The district did ultimately settle for $130,000 in fees and penalties; Ms. Earl-Hubbard has publicly stated her opinion that the penalties could have been substantially higher had the case gone to court.

Apparently, Spokane Public Schools has now decided that legal fees should be included in its estimates of its costs to comply with the Public Records Act.

The district had estimated its costs to comply with public records requests in 2011 at approximately $77,000. A year later, the district claimed that its estimated costs for 2012 had jumped to $350,000. There was much squawking about this jump in the community, but the district did not provide details of that $350,000 estimate.

After a citizen requested a breakdown from the district, it turns out that the district had lumped legal fees into its estimate.

The district's questionable decision to include legal fees in an estimate of district costs to respond to records requests essentially inflated the estimate by almost $300,000.

Legal firm Stevens Clay contracts with Spokane Public Schools and also represents other school districts in the area. The firm says it doesn't itemize its legal fees; instead, its legal activities are listed for the day with a total cost and number of hours.

When asked to provide a breakdown of legal costs for purposes of my lawsuit over public records, the firm provided summaries only, such as this one for July-August 2012, with a total at the bottom.

How does anyone in Spokane Public Schools know how much the legal fees were for public records requests in 2012? Where did its estimate come from?

Here is some more detail regarding legal fees for Spokane Public Schools, gained through someone's public records requests -- but not provided to the public by the media, or by the school district in any district budget or in any district budget "forum."

Spokane Public Schools
List of Legal Services
2008 through September 16, 2013

Spokane Public Schools
List of Legal Services
2008 through 2013

If you have some time, you might browse through some of the letters sent by the school district to my lawyers regarding Rogers vs. Spokane Public Schools -- a lawsuit over the school district's failure to properly release public records

I can see why some people think the school district made the process of releasing records as difficult, disorderly, and expensive as it possibly could.

I can also understand why some would question this school district being willing to spend our tax dollars a) making unsupported accusations against law-abiding citizens, and b) writing long, antagonistic letters that appear to serve no purpose, incurred as they were after the lawsuit was settled.

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