School board approves law firms, including rate increases

By: David Wallace | Farmington Press | Published September 13, 2012

Advertisement

FARMINGTON — The Farmington Public Schools Board of Education recently voted 4-2 to renew its contracts with seven firms that provide legal representation across a spectrum of issues.

Two firms that work directly with the district received approval for increased rates.

During the school board’s midsummer meeting July 24, the board voted to extend the contracts at their then-current rates for a month while district administrators sought explanations for the proposed raises from four firms.

At that time, Freeman, Cotton and Gleason’s hourly rate for this year was proposed to be $200, up from $195; Miller Canfield’s was proposed to be $240-$315, up from $210-$295; Secrest Wardle’s was proposed to be $175-$195, up from $175 last year; and the Thrun Law Firm rate was proposed to be $185-$235, up from $180-$230.

Two firms kept their hourly rates the same: Lusk and Albertson’s rate remained at $195-$220, and Clark Hill’s stayed at $185-$250. The district does not pay a fee to use the services of Oakland Schools Legal Affairs.

Assistant Superintendent David Ruhland, who is a lawyer, reported back to the school board Aug. 21 that Freeman, Cotton and Gleason, and Miller Canfield had provided letters explaining their reasoning for the increases.

Partner Kingsley Cotton deals with student discipline, safety issues, and more.

“The report shows that there’s quite a laundry list of items that over the course of the year Kingsley will help us on. His fee request was an additional $5 an hour, which is a 2.5 percent increase,” said Ruhland.

“Any given year, the firm fees are going to vary by what work was needed and to what extent. But I looked at last year’s billings, and at least from a context standpoint, the increase for Kingsley Cotton’s bill would have been around $1,200 total, if that same fee had been applied,” said Ruhland.

“The other increase was Miller Canfield. Now, Miller Canfield tends to do a more specialized work for us, really between real estate work and when it’s appropriate bond work,” said Ruhland.

The $240-$315 range encompasses work that a partner or an associate might perform.

“The reason there’s a range is because the legal firms try to assign the work to the attorneys that are best suited, but the lower expense, if possible,” said Ruhland.

“A blended rate would indicate their increase is about 10 percent across the board, and if you applied that to last year’s bills, it would have been about another $4,800 on top of what we actually got billed,” said Ruhland.

Secrest Wardle represents a consortium of districts, including Farmington, involved in a class-action suit against the state regarding unfunded mandates.

“It is not a one-on-one relationship. It’s really through that consortium,” said Ruhland. “But that’s the rate. We at least want the board to be aware of what that rate is.”

Thrun Law Firm did not provided an explanation for its proposed raise, and as a result, the district will only accept the firm’s previous 2011-12 rates if the district uses the firm’s services this fiscal year.

“In these times, especially working in the school district, knowing that our funding has been flat, if not shrinking from the demands, I understand the concern for fees,” Ruhland said. “At the same time, working with these firms and especially the nature of the work that’s being done, I feel that the fee increases are modest and appropriate.”

He said that in the past 10 years, the firms have frozen their fees or even reduced them. He said he wanted to publicly show his appreciation to the firms that did not increase their rates.

School Board Secretary George Gurrola, who is a lawyer, said he is sure all of the firms deserve a raise, but a raise isn’t in line with the school district’s financial position.

Gurrola said that he was “disconcerted” that the district decided in June to dip deeply into its fund balance for the 2012-13 year. The district could use $11 million of its fund balance, perhaps causing the balance to barely comply with the school board’s policy of maintaining a fund balance equivalent to 8-12 percent of the district’s expenditures.

“The first rule of holes is that when you find yourself in a hole, you stop digging,” he said.

“I do not support putting the school district on the hook for a higher fee,” he said.

Trustee Murray Kahn also voted against the motion to contract with the firms, but his objection stemmed from having to vote for all of the firms at once.

Kahn said he couldn’t support voting for all the firms in one motion because he objects to the way the district sold Eagle Elementary School and the legal guidance it received in that sale.

Trustee Karen Bolsen abstained from the vote because her husband is a partner in one of the firms, though she said he does not perform work for the district.

Advertisement