The Winona Area Public Schools is a $49 million a year business with over 700 employees, serving thousands of families. The amount of legal services it needs to purchase varies over time based on the School Board's projects and goals, the occurrence of complaints that need to be investigated, and the filing of claims by unions and others that need to be defended.
Examples of Board projects and goals that require the use of legal services include construction projects, review and updating Board policies, interpreting legislation, and negotiating contracts with employees' unions and various vendors, such as building, transportation or financial contractors. Spending money for legal services on these projects protects the District from making mistakes that could be costly to correct.
The District also needs to purchase skilled legal services to investigate complaints and recommend a course of action. Failure to appropriately respond to complaints can result in charges being filed with state and federal agencies, such as the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Office of Civil Rights of the federal Department of Education, or civil law suits being filed against the School District. These types of actions are very costly to defend and could potentially result in large damage awards against the School District. Proactively spending money on legal services to avoid claims being filed reduces the School District's legal expenses over time.
Lastly, when a grievance or law suit is filed against the School District it has to either defend its actions or capitulate. Unions often have legal counsel on retainer to represent them and provide legal advice. Failure to defend claims often has a significant cost, too. For example one of the twelve grievances the Winona Education Association (WEA) filed last school year involved a claim that teachers who worked in the Developing Reading Education and Math Skills (DREAMS) program after school and during the summer were underpaid. The District offered to negotiate a new rate during collective bargaining unfortunately that was rejected and a grievance filed. The WEA was requesting that an arbitrator order the School District to increase the hourly rate teachers are paid to work in the DREAMS program. For some teachers this would be an increase from $20 to over $65 per hour. The WEA was also requesting that the School District pay over $50,000 in back pay to teachers who had worked in the DREAMS program during the 2007-08 school year. Failure to hire legal counsel to represent the District on the DREAMS grievance would result in the District's general fund being depleted by the back pay claim and, in short order, a decision to terminate the DREAMS program because the School District cannot afford to keep it at the hourly rates the WEA was seeking.
Purchasing legal services under these circumstances is a prudent use of taxpayers' money. The Board of Education sets the budget for legal services annually and if necessary has approved extra resources when out of the ordinary situations arise. The School District hopes that it will not have a need to spend as much on legal services in the future. But since most of the legal fees are incurred in response to complaints or claims filed against the School District, the School District cannot control those costs. In the future, we do hope since the majority of grievances are initiated at the building or program level, they will be resolved before the Superintendent or Board of Education need to become involved.