Last school year, the Shawnee Mission School District spent $714,707 on legal services provided by five law firms — with more than $400,000 of that total going to EdCounsel, the firm that now employees former Superintendent Jim Hinson.
Much of that historically high spending on legal expenses last year can be attributed to factors outside the district’s control, namely that it faced expensive litigation brought by employees and patrons. But the growth in average legal expenses during the Hinson years have some district leaders wondering whether a change in approach might be worth considering.
At least two district officials have now privately floated the idea of hiring an attorney to serve as a district employee. This in-house counsel would not only be able to handle a good deal of the work that is currently shopped out, but could also serve as a hub providing oversight of the district’s various legal activities.
Such an arrangement would not be unprecedented in the area.
In Blue Valley, district administrators decided to switch from outsourcing all of their legal work to bringing on an in-house counsel for the 2011-12 school year. Since the switch, the district has seen fairly consistent total expenses on legal matters, averaging $197,320 per year. (The most it spent on legal expenses since bringing on the in-house counsel was in 2015-16 at $244,943. The least it spent was $132,091 in 2013-14). The year before Blue Valley brought on an in-house counsel, it spent $407,661 on legal services. The following year, the tally dropped to $217,976.
Olathe has had an in-house counsel for two decades, though it continues to work with oustide law firms on matters requiring specialization.
“We also work with an outside firm that handles our litigation and significant legal matters,” said Olathe School District spokeswoman Maggie Kolb.
Shawnee Mission will be going through a significant transition as new superintendent Mike Fulton comes on board this summer. Don’t be surprised if the board looks to reconfigure how the district handles legal work as part of that transition.