Superintendent says hiring in-house counsel for Shawnee Mission should offer savings on legal costs

Dr. Michael Fulton says in-house counsel would help control legal costs for the district. File photo.

The Shawnee Mission School District will be looking to hire its own in-house legal counsel as a first point of contact for legal matters, a move that Superintendent Mike Fulton said should save the district money in the long run.

School districts tend to encounter legal issues across a wide array of practice specialties, from the negotiation of employee contracts to real estate deals to suits brought against them by students or teachers. Consequently, Shawnee Mission has for the past several years retained the services of a number of firms to handle legal matters as they arise.

But a board of education committee tasked with reviewing the firms approved to conduct district business has recommended the hiring of an in-house attorney who would be able to handle much of the district’s legal work him or herself, and would be able to coordinate external firms’ work on matters that needed additional personnel.

In an update to the board at its meeting last week, Fulton said that it was common for districts of Shawnee Mission’s size to have an attorney on staff, and noted that neighboring districts Blue Valley and Olathe have internal legal counsel. Fulton said that based on administrators’ review of legal expenses the past several years, hiring an in-house attorney would likely be a good financial move for Shawnee Mission.

“Based on our analysis, it’s pretty clear that at the very least we can go cost neutral, and in many years I think we’ll realize cost savings — sometimes quite a bit of cost savings — by hiring internal counsel,” Fulton said.

The district saw its total expenditures on legal services rise significantly during former Superintendent Jim Hinson’s tenure, topping $700,000 during the 2016-17 school year. The bulk of those fees when to the firm EdCounsel, which Hinson hired to handle much of the district’s legal work starting in late 2013. Hinson took a job as a school governance consultant with the firm months after announcing his retirement from Shawnee Mission.

EdCounsel continues to handle much of the district’s legal work, and is the firm handling Shawnee Mission’s defense of a number of high profile cases, including its defense of the First Amendment lawsuit brought against the district by the ACLU for its handling of student demonstrations on National Walkout Day in April. As of late November, the district had spent $36,237 on legal services with EdCounsel related to the ACLU’s case.

The district plans to post the job opening for an in-house attorney at the start of 2019.