OPS board's law firm in cross hairs - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:22 pm
OPS board's law firm in cross hairs

With Freddie Gray firmly in place as president of the Omaha school board, attention is turning to how the board attorney handled the Nancy Sebring situation.

Omaha school board member Justin Wayne said Tuesday that the board should invite other law firms to submit proposals to provide the district's legal services.

Wayne said he is concerned about the advice that contract attorney Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda of the Baird Holm law firm provided Gray after the two officials learned the Omaha Public Schools' superintendent-to-be had resigned her last job over racy emails she sent on a school computer. Sebring resigned the OPS job June 2 after newspapers published stories about the emails.

He said he is also concerned about how much the district pays for legal services.

Wayne, who backed an unsuccessful attempt to remove Gray from the board presidency Monday, said he's not sure he wants to replace Baird Holm at this time, but he wants to see what other law firms can offer.

Board member Barbara Velázquez, who was among the eight members who supported Gray as president Monday, said Tuesday that she wanted to hear more details from Wayne before saying whether she would back his proposal.

Board member Marian Fey said examining the board's relationship with Baird Holm should be part of an ad hoc committee she has proposed.

“We need to have all the facts in front of us first and decide where we need to go,” she said.

Attempts to reach Eynon-Kokrda, Gray and Baird Holm managing partner Richard Putnam were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The World-Herald reported last month that Gray and Eynon-Kokrda withheld information from other board members about why Sebring abruptly left her post as superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools. Sebring told Gray and Eynon-Kokrda that it was over her personal email correspondence with a lover, sent to and from a Des Moines Public Schools email account.

Sebring was selected in April to replace retiring OPS Superintendent John Mackiel. She resigned May 9 as superintendent in Des Moines, seven weeks before her contract was to expire.

Gray and Eynon-Kokrda planned with Sebring how they would respond if the emails became public.

Both OPS officials say Sebring kept details of the sexually explicit emails from them, and they considered the situation a personnel matter requiring privacy.

Wayne said “the closeness of Baird Holm and the previous administration and the board just raises some concerns for me.”

Wayne said he doesn't have enough facts to know whether Eynon-Kokrda violated the code of professional conduct that governs all practicing attorneys in the state, an allegation leveled by state legislative candidate Ernie Chambers. However, Wayne said he's concerned that Eynon-Kokrda was advising Sebring while the lawyer's primary responsibility should have been to the school board.

Wayne said the district should also look into hiring a staff attorney to handle some of the district's more routine legal work.

He said he asked district officials when the board last put out a request for legal proposals, and no one could recall.

“It's my understanding we haven't done one in, maybe, ever,” he said, “so we need to introduce some competition, see if we can get a lower price.”

The in-house counsel would be an employee of the district rather than an attorney from a private firm.

“I think it will cost less,” he said.

Dennis Pool, OPS's top finance administrator, said Tuesday the district likely has been working with Baird Holm since the 1960s.

He said he was unaware of any contract the district has with the law firm. The district pays Baird Holm by the hour.

“Our work with them is based on need and specific context,” Pool said.

OPS also occasionally uses other law firms for special circumstances, he said, such as an employee hearing in which the district wouldn't want the same firm representing administration and the school board.

Earlier this year, The World-Herald reviewed OPS's legal expenses and found that lawyers for the Omaha Public Schools logged more than 10,000 hours of work last year and charged taxpayers nearly $2.1 million.

Over the past five years, Baird Holm billed OPS more than $13 million for more than 83,500 hours of work, according to records the newspaper obtained from the school district.

Other large Nebraska school districts don't spend nearly as much as OPS, either overall or on a per-student basis, for lawyers. Nor do some other major urban school districts, such as Denver's. Some large cities have seen savings by relying on in-house lawyers for schools.

Denver and Kansas City, Mo., both are among districts that have hired their own legal staff to save money instead of paying outside attorneys by the hour.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

Contact the writer: Joe Dejka

joe.dejka@owh.com    |   402-444-1077

Joe's beat is education, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school.

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