School districts, cities need legal expertise for a variety of matters

In all the school districts Superintendent Don Schlomann previously worked in, he said, parents’ threats about calling their attorney have been just that – threats.

St. Charles School District 303 has been different, however.

Often, he said, parents contact their attorney before they contact him. And when parents send lawyers in to handle disputes, the school district feels it needs legal representation, as well, Schlomann said.

“Unfortunately, I guess we live in very litigious times,” he said. “Oftentimes, people are of the opinion they have to protect themselves by bringing legal counsel.”

District 303 has been accruing legal costs since 2011 on a parent-generated lawsuit about the reconfiguration of Richmond and Davis schools. Through Jan. 31, it has spent about $346,793 on that case and an additional $26,841 on a related class action lawsuit filed last year, district spokesman Jim Blaney said.

Kane County, Geneva School District 304 and the city of St. Charles are among other public bodies that have needed attorneys in recent years for court matters.

St. Charles, for example, has taken resident Clifford McIlvaine to court on a decadeslong home improvement project. Finance Director Chris Minick said in an email that the city’s legal costs for that case totaled $91,542 in fiscal 2012-13 and $57,190 so far this fiscal year.

But not all legal fees accrued by school districts and other public entities are the result of litigation, officials said.

Although John McGuirk ended his tenure as St. Charles 3rd Ward alderman in 2011, he continues to be a regular presence at City Council and Government Operations Committee meetings as city attorney.

The city pays his firm – Hoscheit, McGuirk, McCracken & Cuscaden – a $1,000 monthly retainer that includes McGuirk’s attendance at those meetings, regardless of time spent, Minick said. If the city requests McGuirk’s presence at other meetings or work on other legal matters, Minick said, it is charged an hourly rate of $200.

Attorneys representing the city of St. Charles in court also charge an hourly rate, Minick said.

For the current fiscal year that ends April 30, Minick said, the city’s legal expenses have totaled $429,462 – an all-inclusive amount that includes retainers, anticipated litigation and legal costs, as well as anticipated expenses related to a number of matters, such as collective bargaining, workers compensation and contract/agreement review, he said.

In comparison, the city of Geneva has spent $111,016 of the $164,075 it budgeted for legal expenses – which includes TriCom – for fiscal 2013-14, city spokesman Kevin Stahr said in an email.

Representatives from District 303, Geneva School District 304 and Batavia Public School District 101 said they use attorneys for a variety of reasons, including property tax appeals, contract reviews, employee contract negotiations and grievance issues.

“Honestly, there’s not a lot of times we go to court,” said Kris Monn, assistant superintendent for finance for Batavia schools.

The Batavia and Geneva school districts pay hourly attorney costs, officials said. For the fiscal year that ends June 30, Monn said, the Batavia district budgeted $105,000 for legal costs and has spent about $89,000. Geneva, meanwhile, has spent about $78,500 of its $150,000 budget, district spokesperson Kelley Munch said in an email.

District 303 has an agreement with Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn. The district gets certain services with a $500 monthly allotment and is billed hourly thereafter, Blaney said.

Budgeting for legal expenses can be difficult because it is difficult to predict the events that will call for such counsel, Schlomann said. Even when the event has occurred, he said, it is difficult to guess where it will go.

Some legal matters linger for years, Schlomann said, noting the mold remediation case from the early 2000s has outlasted multiple superintendents and business managers.

This year, District 303’s best guess for legal costs was off, as the two funds where legal expenses are budgeted are over budget. In one fund, Blaney said, $160,000 was budgeted, and $242,917 has been spent; in the other, $20,000 was budgeted, and $171,424 has been spent.

Insurance can cover a portion of those expenses, Schlomann said.

Officials said there are few options to lower legal expenses.

“If you felt like the price was too high, you could always search for firms that have a lower hourly rate, I suppose,” Monn said, but also noted the value of building a relationship with a firm.

Schlomann said he believes a public body’s communication with its constituency is part of the answer. When a degree of trust has been developed, he said, parents might be willing to work with district officials directly instead of sending in a lawyer.