The Scottsdale Unified School District has substantially reduced what it spends on attorneys, but is still paying more than even the state’s largest school district so far this school year.
Scottsdale paid more in the last three years — with only partial results compiled this school year — than the Mesa Unified School District and two other districts that are about Scottsdale’s size.
While still facing high legal costs, the district is making an effort to reduce fees paid to lawyers as part of an overall budget reduction, said Bob Flach, the district’s chief financial officer.
“We’re making an absolute, guaranteed, all-out conscious effort to reduce that, and you can see the results,” Flach said. “That was one of our goals last year when we were cutting the budget.”
From 1998 to 2002, the district’s legal fees were significantly higher, hovering around $400,000 a year, with more than half a million dollars paid during the 1998-99 school year.
But the district’s legal fees so far this year — $158,409 — still surpassed recent numbers from the Mesa, Paradise Valley and Gilbert unified school districts.
The figures do not include costs covered by legal trusts, a kind of insurance used by state districts to fund certain types of litigation and consultation.
Last school year, when Flach and district staff researched why Scottsdale’s fees were so high, they found a recurring high cost — attorneys representing the district in student discipline matters. This is far more common in the Scottsdale district than in others, Flach said.
“(Other district officials) say they rarely ever have an attorney involved in student discipline kinds of issues, and ours is fairly frequent,” Flach said.
Another factor was that the state attorney general required that a lawyer attend board meetings for more than three years as part of scrutiny resulting from procurement violations in 1998.
This year, high costs resulted from the district’s termination of David Michael Renaud, a former teacher who pleaded guilty last week to charges of child molestation, and an attorney-led investigation into the handling of the situation.
Efforts to reduce costs included cutting back on work lawyers performed by having them give final approval on policies and intergovernmental agreements, rather than drafting them with administration, Flach said.
As public agencies with constitutional issues and thousands of employees, school districts have a certain number of inherent legal headaches, but administrators have creative ways to control costs.
The Gilbert Unified School District, for example, keeps its costs relatively low — just over $30,000 this year so far — by asking double duty of a top administrator.
“I’m an assistant superintendent, but I’m also an attorney,” said Clyde Dangerfield, whose primary job is head of business services.
Dangerfield has tackled an increasing number of the district’s legal battles as he’s learned about different areas of law, calling in paid consultants only in areas that he can’t handle or present a conflict, he said.
“It’s a very efficient way to run a school district,” he said.
For larger districts such as Mesa, an in-house lawyer becomes cost-effective.
Even including legal counsel Tom Pickrell’s current salary of $95,584, the district’s annual fees have been comparable to those of the Paradise Valley district, which is less than half as large as Mesa in enrollment.
The Tempe Union High, Tempe Elementary and Kyrene Unified school districts share one legal counsel.
The Scottsdale district won’t consider hiring in-house attorneys, but Flach anticipates that in another year of reduction, Scottsdale will be on par with other school districts.