Shawnee Mission legal expenses rose steadily during Hinson era, topping $700,000 last year

Former Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson.

Former Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson’s new job as a school governance consultant with EdCounsel, the firm he hired to handle the bulk of the district’s legal work starting during the 2013-14 school year, has raised questions about the long-term business relationship between Hinson and attorney Duane Martin.

As it turns out, Martin and his EdCounsel firm were the biggest beneficiaries of steadily increasing expenditures on legal fees during Hinson’s time leading the district.

During Hinson’s tenure, Shawnee Mission spent an average of $456,937 per year on legal services. The previous four school years, when Dr. Gene Johnson was superintendent, Shawnee Mission spent an average of $379,082 on legal services, approximately $78,000 less per year.

Total expenditures on legal services also rose each year during Hinson’s tenure:

  • 2013-14: $178,970
  • 2014-15: $392,645
  • 2015-16: $541,430
  • 2016-17: $714,707

District officials have pointed out that much of the legal fees incurred over the past few years have been related to one-time initiatives, like the issuance of $223 million in bonds approved by voters in 2015, coordination with the city of Lenexa on the transfer of land for the district’s new $27.8 million aquatic center, or work on the district’s position in the Kansas school finance case.

And even at $700,000, legal expenses only accounted for about 1/10th of 1 percent of the district’s total budget last year. (The administration team that’s taken over leadership of the district since Hinson’s departure notes that EdCounsel’s rate for billable hours — $190 per hour — is lower than what it was paying for general legal services to other firms with which it works).

However, the biggest increase in legal expenses during Hinson’s final years as superintendent appear to be related to complaints and litigation brought against the district by employees, issues that were handled primarily by EdCounsel.

In 2016-17, the district racked up dozens of billable hours on EdCounsel’s work related to four separate complaints brought by certified or classified employees against the district through the Kansas Human Rights Commission. The group, based in Topeka, handles issues related to discrimination in employment situations.

“Due to the nature of the requests from the KHRC, responding to the complaints requires extensive document retrieval and review by the District,” said Rick Atha, Shawnee Mission assistant superintendent for instructional support.

There were also several line items in EdCounsel invoices for time spent on matters regarding complaints through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

The Office for Civil Rights and Kansas Human Rights Commission issues were apparently being handled outside of the court system. But EdCounsel also spent a good deal of time doing litigation work on the case brought against the district in summer 2015 by former SM East biology teacher Rubye Davis, who alleged that she was transferred from SM East to SM West on account of her race. Davis, who is black, is seeking $100,000 in employment discrimination damages. That case is still making its way through U.S. District Court.

A document summarizing the district’s expenses on legal service from 2009-10 through last school year is embedded below:

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