IL school boards praise in-house attorneys

According to a September 19 article by Julie Evelsizer of the Pantagraph, several large Illinois school districts employ in-house attorneys and have praised their involvement with school affairs and relied on them for critical advice navigating the legal landscape of school regulations.


Normal West H.S. marching band at the Ill. State Fair, 2010 (Randy von Liski / Flickr CC)

“Having in-house counsel at school districts is more about the quality and effectiveness of legal analysis,” the paper quoted David Wood, in-house attorney and chief financial and legal officer for Bloomington School District 87, which is anchored by Bloomington High School and includes 10 school buildings.

“There is no end of legal issues out there that school districts are dealing with. We have to constantly be on top of that to protect our students, faculty, and taxpayers.”

District 87 doesn’t have a legal department, per se, the paper reports, but tends to seek outside counsel for cases that can drag on for years. The more everyday legal advice that seems to come up every time a superintendent turns around, is handled by the in-house counsel, according to Curt Richardson, the attorney for Normal Unit 5, which includes Normal Community and Normal Community West high schools.

“We have to have knowledge of school code and other laws that apply to school districts and be experts in that,” he said. “We review contracts on a daily basis with various entities and deal with issues in school code, employment, labor, special education, property, finance and family law.” He has been the district’s attorney since 2011.

Both attorneys bring in salaries in the mid-$100s, according to the article, but it’s getting harder and harder for small towns across America to keep attorneys or, more commonly, to replace aging attorneys with younger counterparts who can continue to serve. This is especially true in rural communities, where schools have a need for the same legal advice Mr Wood and Mr Richardson bring to Bloomington-Normal.

Sometimes it comes down to dollars and cents: despite the pleasures of working in a school district or a small rural community, salaries for lawyers in big-city firms can be more helpful in paying back a $100,000 debt from law school. Attorney Roger Kurt, of Kurt Law Office, PC, has been practicing law in Cascade, Iowa, since 1984, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports.

“I think that being a young lawyer in a small town is challenging and rewarding,” the paper quoted him as saying. “In larger cities, the work that attorneys do becomes so specialized. Small towns give lawyers a chance to work in a lot of different areas. There are a variety of issues that come your way.”

The Telegraph Herald quoted another attorney, now 65, as being hopeful as well. “I think there is a special relationship you form with your clients when you are a lawyer in a small town,” he said. “You see them at school events, or run into them at the grocery store. As a lawyer, you are a trusted adviser for (your clients). Those relationships matter.”

Editorial

So here’s a question: How do small school districts—you know, those in Illinois that have just one elementary school and one middle school or just a single high school—how do they get legal advice about important school issues?

Are students with special needs being taken care of appropriately? Are they getting all the special assistance, some of which is provided by technology, that the law entitles them to? Is the school balancing the legal requirement that it allow students to speak their minds with the necessary restriction on that right that requires schools to maintain a safe learning environment for all students?

Some smaller districts in the state have considered consolidating with other small districts around their location, and small schools often form football coops with nearby schools in order to have enough kids to take the field safely. Do they do that with lawyers too? Does it work?

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.