The Omaha school district's effort to save legal costs won't include changing law firms, at least for now.
A board committee charged with looking into attorney-board communication matters and cost-saving measures decided now wasn't the time for the district to seriously consider changing lawyers, as some had suggested.
Changing law firms or having the district hire its own attorneys could save money, and the board didn't rule out making such a change later.
But for now, the board has plenty on its plate, the committee decided. Omaha Public Schools plan to hire a new superintendent this month. Next month, a new session of the Nebraska Legislature begins, and one-third of the school board will be new.
“Now just isn't the time to walk blind,” Bambi Bartek, committee and board member, said at the board's meeting earlier this week.
Other board members had previously asked the board and the committee to look at how other districts use legal services and in what ways OPS can trim its bills with Baird Holm, an Omaha law firm the district has used since the 1960s.
Over the past five years, the firm has billed OPS more than $13 million for more than 83,500 hours of work, according to records The World-Herald 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.
“A wholesale change may be in our future,” Marian Fey, a member of the committee and board, said in an interview.
Earlier this week, the board met with the district's attorney, Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda of Baird Holm, and Richard Putnam, Baird Holm managing partner, in closed session to talk about cost-containment strategies.
The board voted 6-5 to go into closed session to talk about that and other matters. After the closed session, board President Freddie Gray said those ideas would come before the board at a later date.
Opposing board members wanted more information, including what other firms could offer, and from other people, not Baird Holm attorneys.
“If we are considering changing, we need more information from more people,” said Shirley Tyree, board member.
Board member Justin Wayne said the board had time to look elsewhere. Wayne, a labor relations attorney with Union Pacific Railroad, said the board could ask other firms for legal services proposals and get that information within a couple of weeks.
“The whole committee was a joke,” Wayne said in an interview. “We didn't take a serious look at anything before making any decisions.”
In August, Gray appointed members to the temporary committee at the request of Fey, who wanted members to review board policy about how it gets and shares information with its attorney.
That call and board member frustration grew out of how Gray and Eynon-Kokrda handled the Nancy Sebring situation.
Gray and Eynon-Kokrda withheld information from other board members about why Sebring, who at that time was tapped to be the next OPS superintendent, had 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 resigned from the OPS job on June 2 after newspapers published stories about the emails.
Both OPS officials say Sebring kept details of the sexually explicit emails from them, and they considered the situation a personnel matter requiring privacy.
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