PEORIA, IL -- Legal fees for the Peoria Public School District totaled almost $1 million from the education fund from 2016 to 2018, school critic Sharon Crews told the school board at its August 27 meeting.
She has researched the legal costs, and her report is attached below. It's worth reading carefully. And she had trouble getting information from her Freedom of Information request, which seems questionable.
The other usual critic at the public comment section of the board's agenda, Terry Knapp, continued the criticism of the legal bills. The Peoria Federation of Teachers doesn't pay lawyers to negotiate the union contract, he said. The union members do it themselves, he said. Knapp is a former PFT president.
Knapp said a union contract actually saves money by keeping the parties out of court. Then he criticized the public charter school Quest, which has a two page contract and is in litigation against former staff members.
The grievance and arbitration process attached to most union contracts makes the process simpler and cheaper than a lawsuit.
Knapp then said the school district could save $6 million by "getting rid of Quest." It's run as a business, and is "not interested in teachers," he said.
Knapp asked who is paying a District 150 administrator, formerly a Quest administrator, who is spending time in court for a Quest lawsuit.
Here is a recording of the comments.
There was no response from the board to this question.
Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said the district's Chicago law firm has "saved us lots of money," and is not paid for travel now. A $900 monthly retainer allows calls and questions to be asked and answered, but access to the lawyers is restricted to a few administrators, she said.
-- Elaine Hopkins
Here is the comment from Sharon Crews:
In the lawyer-prepared response to my FOIA request about legal issues and fees paid for 2016-2018, all specific details were redacted.
A 2015 Chicago Tribune article about reporting legal costs in public schools could easily have been a description of the information I received. The article stated, “Analysis of legal spending was thwarted by claims of attorney-client privilege. Some descriptions were so heavily redacted that work was described as only “research,” “analysis” or “preparation.”
With regard to attorney-client privilege, who specifically is the client? When the school board or the district, not a person, is the client why is attorney-confidentiality required? What is the public’s right to know?
The Tribune article states that “school superintendents maintain that legal spending helps avoid costly lawsuits, aids in contract negotiations and ensures compliance with laws. If these are Peoria’s main reasons for hiring attorneys, the redaction of details seems unnecessary because these cases are reported in the Peoria Journal.
However, the article points out what I believe to be true about this district, also,—that money is “spent liberally on attorneys who gave general legal advice on everything from reviewing a copy machine lease to assessing open records requests,” and that district administrators pay attorneys for phone conversations and responses to e-mail questions.
Which administrators have the right to contact lawyers for legal advice and/or action and who gives them permission to engage lawyers and, therefore, has the right to authorize money spent on legal fees? To what extent can the board limit contacting lawyers and for what reasons?
The total spent on legal fees for almost two years from July 2016 through May 2018 was about $968,000—almost one million dollars from the Education Fund.
For 2016-17 lawyers were paid $17,258 for travel expenses to and from Peoria. That, I believe, is a travesty. There were no travel expenses listed for 2017-18. I have to ask: Was a decision made not to pay travel expenses or is it possible that I just didn’t receive that information?
Lawyers handled 3,045 issues categorized into 53 very nebulous topics over a 23-month period—that is an average of 123 issues a month. Doesn’t that seem excessive? I assume that all of the administrators on Wisconsin Avenue have administrative degrees and that most of those degrees include courses in school law. Why shouldn’t these high paid employees be qualified to deal with many of these issues?
$117,000 was spent on 17 issues related to personnel matters, negotiations, and grievances. My guess is that this legal advice favored the administration, not the teachers and other employees. I am curious about the $785 spent on five instances of issues labeled as SBE Complaints (which appears to refer to Eisenhammer).
About $340,000 was spent on 70 issues related to Peoria Public Schools—WOW that’s informative! About $36,000 was spent on 15 investigations. $49.000 on nine lawsuits, $133,000 on sixteen issues related to students, $35.644 on 22 special ed issues. $27,642 was spent on thirty issues that had no title at all—obviously top secret.
Other topics include: Agreement, Arbitration, Audit letters, board governance, board policy, Charge, Complaint, Contracts, Court Reporter Fee, Due Process, EEOC, Finance, FOIA, Grievances. Please consider the possibility that this money is not being wisely spent.