East Central Illinois' three largest school districts spent $936,000 on legal work last year — an amount that would pay almost 17 teachers in Champaign, Urbana and Danville.
The Champaign school district spent about $727,000 on legal fees last year — which, with an average teacher salary of $55,185 in 2011-12, was the equivalent of 13 teachers' salaries.
Urbana spent about $108,000 on legal bills during the same period, and its average teacher salary was $53,230, according to its state report card. That means it spent the equivalent of more than two teachers' salaries.
And Danville spent about $101,000 last year on legal bills, the equivalent of less than two teachers' salaries, as its average salary last year was $59,110.
School districts use lawyers for various reasons, including "to save costs down the road on litigation," said recently hired Champaign school attorney Tommy Lockman, as well as to make sure they're complying with state law, regulations and school board policy.
The amount school districts pay each year for legal bills varies wildly, he said.
"It depends what's going on in a specific year," he said, adding that various legal issues and contract negotiations can add "significant costs."
For example, he said, the Champaign school district's legal bills were much higher during the years in which it was operated under a federal consent decree.
That was between 2001 and 2009, which required it to eliminate unwarranted disparities between black and white students in achievement, discipline, attendance, assignment to special education and access to gifted and honors classes, among other things.
The decree was ended in November 2009, and according to the school district's records of its legal fees that school year, Champaign paid about $600,500 to Chicago law firm Franczek Radelet, P.C. just for that case. The next school year, those fees went down to about $42,800, and were about $42,000 during the 2011-12 school year. So far this year, the district has spent less than $2,500 with that firm for consent decree-related work.
Also, the Champaign school district finished paying the consent decree's plaintiffs' legal bills during the 2011-12 school year, for a total of about $415,500 to Chicago law firm Futterman and Howard that year.
Joe Davis, Champaign's interim business manager, said the school district paid legal fees associated with the consent decree out of its tort fund, because it was associated with a specific court case. But many of its legal bills now are paid through its education fund, which is also the fund used to pay teachers' salaries.
The school district can levy property taxes to pay for expenses associated with both funds, Davis said.
In Danville, most legal bills are paid for out of the tort fund, except for those associated with negotiations, which are paid for out of the school district's education fund, said Danville Business Manager Heather McKiernan.
Urbana pays its legal fees from its tort fund, Urbana Director of Business Carol Baker said.
School districts also use lawyers when negotiating contracts with their employees.
The Champaign school district paid Franczek Radelet, P.C., almost $13,500 during the 2011-12 school year for contract negotiations with the union that represents the school district's teachers, and $19,708 so far this school year for the same purpose. The school district paid the same firm $21,361.35 during the 2010-11 school year to negotiate with the union that represents support employees, including bus drivers, secretaries and more.
During the 2011-12 school year, the Danville school district spent $15,735 with the law firm Davis and Delanois for contract negotiations, and about $3,300 with Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn for the same reason. So far this year, Danville has spent about $15,000 with Davis and Delanois on negotiations and about $14,700 with Hodges Loizzi Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn.
In Urbana, the school district spent about $25,000 last year negotiating a new contract with its teachers and support personnel, and more than $3,000 for that purpose this year.
The current contract, which the school board approved last summer, required extensive changes because of changes to state law, especially about how teachers are evaluated, and because of expected changes to pensions, Baker said.
Urbana spent about $44,000 in the 2009-10 school year for the lawsuit it filed against the Normal school district relating to former teacher Jon White, and about $43,000 in the 2010-11 school year to appeal to the Fourth District Appellate Court when a trial court dismissed Urbana's lawsuit against that school district.
White is a former Urbana and Normal teacher who is serving a 60-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in February 2008 to sexually abusing students in both school districts. The school district sued Normal, saying the latter gave false information about White's employment history.
The issue of Carle Physician Group's property tax exemption has also been a topic the Urbana school district pays lawyers to deal with.
The school district spent about $52,000 in legal fees on the topic during 2010-11, about $52,000 in 2011-12, and has spent about $35,000 through November of 2012 on the topic so far this school year.
Lockman, who started his newly created position at the Champaign school district earlier this year, said the job was created to save the school district on its legal bills. However, his duties will depend on the needs and staffing of the school district.
For example, he said, he's been working closely so far with the school district's business office because the school district now has an interim business manager, and its finance director left the school district for another job in mid-January. He expects to work on Freedom of Information Act requests and personnel issues, adding that the public sometimes forgets the school district employs 1,400 people.
However, his role won't eliminate the school district's need to use outside legal counsel, he said.
"There's more work to be done than one person can do," Lockman said, adding that he'll take direction from Superintendent Judy Wiegand as to what issues he'll tackle in-house.