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2020 legal fees were costly for school district

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | June 30, 2021 1:00 AM

MOSES LAKE — The Moses Lake School District spent about $614,000 on legal fees in 2020, mostly handling personnel matters and dealing with claims from families with special education students, according to MLSD Superintendent Josh Meek.

Speaking at a meeting of the Moses Lake School Board last week, Meek said the district paid Spokane-based law firm Stevens Clay, which specializes in school and municipal litigation, $614,327 during 2020 for legal services.

“It’s higher than previous years,” Meek told the Columbia Basin Herald after the meeting. “2020 was a challenge for us that way.”

During the meeting, Meek told board members the district’s 2020 legal bill was the result of “two very large cases” that have continued into 2021, though he gave no specifics.

Board members expressed concerns the bills were not itemized and did not contain specific information on which cases attorneys were working on and how many hours they spent working, and all the district received was a monthly bill.

“It’s a complicated line of work, and no one wants to pay you what you’re worth,” said Bryce McPartland, who is himself an attorney. “I’m concerned that the bills aren’t itemized. There’s no accountability in the bills, and that’s worth investigating.”

Meek said in the future, the district will request itemized bills from Stevens Clay.

However, board members Elliott Goodrich and Shannon Hintz wondered whether the district should look at other options, perhaps contracting with a different law firm or even hiring its own in-house counsel to handle legal matters.

“Are there any districts with their own counsel?” Hintz asked.

Meek said larger school districts do have their own counsels or even legal teams, but he was not sure any districts similar in size to the Moses Lake district have hired their own attorneys.

“We’ve had a very challenging couple of years, and we’ve used more than we like,” Meek told board members. “But I don’t know what’s typical anymore.”

After the meeting, Meek said the costliest and most challenging legal matter the district deals with involves terminating employees, especially certificated employees like teachers, where state law is clear about how the process must go and what must happen at every step.

“This year involves the release of multiple employees,” Meek said, though he would not be any more specific.

Meek also said it is not unusual for the parents of students to pursue legal action when they believe their children’s rights have been violated or they have concerns the educational needs of their children have not been adequately met. This has been especially true with the pandemic-related changes in schooling and the difficulty many districts have found in delivering services to students in special education.

“It’s very common to respond to multiple concerns simultaneously,” he said.

On average, the MLSD spent around $51,200 per month on legal services in 2020. The costliest month was May, when the district spent $152,785 on attorneys fees.

In the first five months of 2021, the MLSD spent a little more than $123,000 on legal fees. For comparison, the MLSD’s 2020-21 operating budget approved last year is $123.7 million.