Schools’ attorney-led contract talks cost taxpayers

Idaho’s teachers union is no fan of negotiations in which school boards send in an attorney to do the district’s talking.

At a legislative hearing of the K-12 interim committee last week, Idaho Education Association officials said school districts should be more transparent about how much they spend on lawyers to do what was once the districts’ work.

I wondered how transparent districts were. So I called the Nampa and Meridian school districts — the two that had attorneys at the table this year — to see how much they spent for the 2013-2014 negotiations.

I had my answer from district officials within a day.

Nampa: $13,077.50.

Meridian: $10,809.

The larger question is why they do it.

Both districts hired attorneys even as they were facing financial problems.

Nampa was going through a financial crisis from a $500,000 deficit brought on by budget miscalculations.

Meridian was all but draining its reserve accounts to cover losses incurred as the state cut money for public education.

But both say hiring an attorney made sense.

Financially struggling Nampa had experienced leadership turnover as negotiations were about to start. The first day of negotiations was also the first day on the job for interim Superintendent Pete Koehler, who replaced Tom Michaelson.

Nampa had a new human resources director who had been on the job about a month and the finance officer had resigned.

“The district had no experienced negotiators,” said Allison Westfall, district spokeswoman. “Given the new leadership and the district’s precarious financial situation, the board approved hiring an attorney and the expense.”

Meridian first hired an attorney during negotiations for the 2012-2013 school year. Negotiations had become “ugly” and “hostile,” said Linda Clark, superintendent. She would not provide details because those negotiations were not open to the public.

Clark said the attorney was hired to help keep the process from breaking down. Cost for those negotiations was about $8,000, Clark said.

IEA officials say at least six districts in Idaho used attorneys in their negotiations this year.

They complain that the attorneys cost money that could go to classrooms and are counterproductive to the bargaining process. They also say attorneys can be brought in from outside the community and may not be familiar with community issues.

Posted in In The Classroom