A Lafayette Parish School Board committee is looking at ways to stem the school system’s rising legal bills, which have doubled in the past year.
The reasons for the mounting legal costs involve employee litigation, including the lawsuit involving former Superintendent Pat Cooper, and claims for bus accidents and worker’s compensation.
Three options under consideration are hiring in-house legal staff, renewing the board’s relationship with the District Attorney’s Office and increasing the school system’s insurance premiums.
The board employs general counsel to handle day-to-day operations and provide advice to the board and staff. It also employs special counsel to handle insurance and worker’s compensation claims.
The board’s executive committee — board President Tommy Angelle, Vice President Dawn Morris and Erick Knezek — discussed the options at a meeting Thursday. Staff will review options and report back to the committee on June 16.
Legal costs for both general counsel and special counsel services have increased, and the board needs to develop a plan to contain the costs, which are billed at an hourly rate, said Morris, who is also an attorney.
Since March 2014, the School Board has used a private law firm — Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice — as its general counsel after ending its relationship with the District Attorney’s Office for pro bono general counsel services. Between July 1, 2014, and the end of February, legal fees from the firm totaled about $178,000, while the board had allocated $183,000 for legal expenses.
In the current fiscal year, the board’s legal fees have also increased by more than $120,000 related to special counsel hired for the investigation and employment hearing of Cooper, who was terminated in November.
The fees also included representation of the board against Cooper’s current legal challenge of his termination.
Because of the increased legal costs, the board has in recent months twice approved budget revisions.
In January, the board approved a budget revision of $200,000 and on Wednesday, it approved adding another $105,000 into its legal services account so bills from January and future expenses through the end of the fiscal year in June could be paid.
“Right now, what I’m leaning towards is an in-house (legal) department for everything,” Morris said, noting that an in-house attorney would be more cost-effective.
The board’s current general counsel attorney, Bob Hammonds, said it would be difficult to find an attorney trained to handle the broad range of issues related to education law.
“By the time you add all your budgets together, you are a $400 million-a-year corporation with over 4,000 employees and all the problems that go with that,” Hammonds said. “I know you have a concern about your fees. It sounds self-serving for me to say your fees are really not that high. When you look at the multitude of issues you have … if you ask another $400 million corporation what their legal fees are,” they’d be higher and the hourly rate paid would be higher, he added.
Morris said renewing the board’s relationship with the District Attorney’s Office should also be investigated and asked Superintendent Donald Aguillard to reach out to District Attorney Keith Stutes.
She also suggested reducing the number of meetings that current general counsel attends.
Morris said other parishes pay higher premiums for worker’s compensation and liability insurance upfront so legal costs would be covered in the premiums rather than paying legal fees for those associated claims.
She asked insurance risk management director Mona Bernard to research rates.
On Wednesday, the board approved a total budget revision of $937,949 to cover legal expenses and insurance liability claims with sales tax revenues. In addition to the $105,000 for general counsel attorneys and other attorney fees, at least $678,264 was for liability claims due to an increase in bus accidents and $154,685 for legal costs associated with the insurance claims.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.