This is how the Shawnee Mission School District responded to our request for information about how much it spends on legal fees: By incurring more totally unnecessary legal fees

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Commentary

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In the survey it put out this fall ahead of its search for a new Shawnee Mission School District superintendent, consulting firm Ray and Associates found that district patrons were less than thrilled with the central office’s transparency and vision; and were not wholly convinced leaders spend taxpayer funds responsibly.

I’m starting to see why…

Erin Little was hired to lead the district's media relations operations in January.
Erin Little was hired to lead the district’s media relations operations in January.

Over the course of the past three or four months, we’ve had a handful of people from both inside and outside the district suggest we look into how the district’s spending on legal services has changed over the past several years. Prior to the arrival of Jim Hinson in 2013, the district appeared to have nearly all of its legal work handled by Curt Tideman of Lathrop Gage. But last year, there were at least three firms providing services to the district: Lathrop Gage, Logan Logan and Watson and EdCounsel.

What prompted the decision to bring on additional law firms? What would be the strategic advantage of having more than one legal team working on district business? Have total expenditures on legal services risen, stayed the same, or gone down?

Those seemed like pretty straightforward questions to us, so last week we submitted a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for information about the district’s spending on legal services.

On Friday, we received the following response from Director of Communications Erin Little:

Mr. Senter – The District has received the following request:

“1.) The total amount spent by the district on legal services for each school year from 2008-09 to 2016-17
2.) The names of all law firms that provided services to the school district by year for each school year from 2008-09 to 2016-17
3.) A summary of all invoices paid by the Shawnee Mission School District for legal services for the 2016-17 school year, including the name of the firm that provided the services, the scope of work covered under each invoice, and the amount paid.
4.) A summary of all invoices paid by the Shawnee Mission School District for legal services for the 2012-13 school year, including the name of the firm that provided the services, the scope of work covered under each invoice, and the amount paid.”

As to your first two requests, those are not proper requests for “records” under KORA. See K.S.A. 45-220(a) and (b); K.S.A. 45-216(a); K.S.A. 45-217(g)(1). Further, the Kansas Attorney General provides on its website, “the KORA applies to public records possessed by a public agency at the time the request is made. It does not require that a public agency do research for you, create a record it does not already possess, or write out their response to your questions.” See https://ag.ks.gov/open-government/kora-faq. If you are seeking a “record” currently possessed by the District, please specify.

As to your last two requests, the District does not currently possess a responsive record. If you would like access to the District’s legal invoices, please specify which invoices you are seeking, and the District will provide a time and fee estimate for compiling those records.

Based on your request, most of this information is archived and would generate a cost to you for fulfillment. If would like to narrow your scope, or provide any insight into what specific information you are seeking that may help regarding fulfillment of any additional or new request.

Thank you.

Erin Little
Director of Communications

Call me crazy, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of email response Little, a television meteorologist by training, would have crafted herself. I think there might — just might — have been a lawyer involved. So, to summarize:

  • 1.) The school district, a public institution funded with taxpayer money, gets a request for information on expenditures, and instead of just complying with the request, its six-figure salaried communications director loops in a lawyer to figure out how to avoid providing the information.
  • 2.) The district’s response to a straightforward inquiry about its legal fees was to incur more legal fees.

Transparent? No. A responsible use of taxpayer money? No. Infuriating at every level? Indeed. Very much so.