The Omaha school district has let a one-year retainer agreement with its longtime outside law firm expire and instead is extending it on a month-to-month basis.
Board members also haven't ruled out seeking proposals for the district's legal services, raising the possibility that a firm other than Baird Holm could represent Omaha Public Schools for the first time in more than 40 years.
But the often-scrutinized subject of the district's legal spending has been eclipsed somewhat by the larger needs highlighted in a recent 119-page assessment of OPS operations, school board President Justin Wayne said.
The OPS board signed a one-year retainer agreement with Baird Holm in December 2012 to pay a flat monthly fee of $11,500 for routine legal services, a move meant to rein in annual legal costs that at one point exceeded $4 million. Before the retainer agreement was drafted, OPS paid all billable hours, and several litigation-heavy years sent legal costs soaring.
This past October the board hired its first in-house attorney, Megan Neiles-Brasch, who has assumed the district's day-to-day legal work and also serves as chief negotiator.
At the time, the board was still deciding whether to renew Baird Holm's contract when it ended in December or ask other law firms to submit proposals and rates for OPS's outside legal work — complex litigation or other legal matters that fell outside Neiles-Brasch's expertise or added too much to her workload.
With the contract now extended month to-month, Wayne and OPS spokesman Todd Andrews said the district is still analyzing its need for outside counsel and the best and most cost-effective way to procure those services. Neiles-Brasch is compiling a report on the district's use of outside attorneys.
“It's still in the analysis stage,” Andrews said.
Andrews said it would be up to the school board to decide to request proposals for legal services and said there is no strict timeline for when that might happen.
Wayne, who in the past pushed the board to bid or at least seek proposals for its law contract, said the board could be ready to solicit quotes from law firms by spring. Because Neiles-Brasch came on in October, there have been only November and December legal bills to examine — insufficient for drawing conclusions, he said.
“We'll get that report here pretty soon,” Wayne said. “We'll get an update from legal counsel within the next month or two and start having a conversation about 'How do we best do our legal services?' ”
But he conceded that legal costs have been bumped down the priority list as the district works to create a five-year strategic plan and address some of the challenges the needs assessment pointed out, such as lopsided high school enrollments, outdated technology and school funding inequities.
“After looking at our needs analysis, the legal aspect of this is going to be a small issue in comparison with some of the big issues we'll have to talk about as a board, like our student assignment plan, technology updates,” Wayne said. “These are the issues that parents and the community get upset about.”
Board member Marian Fey wants assurances that the board will get regular updates.
“I think we have to continue to give our legal in-house counsel more time,” she said. “I'm OK with having her navigate the situation and figure out ways for cost savings as long as we're getting regular updates and we know the process is moving along and will come back to the board at some point.”
The retainer agreement covers work logged by Baird Holm attorneys related to attending board meetings; reviewing legislation and current laws and regulations; phone calls about day-to-day school law matters; advice on general school matters; and drafting or reviewing simple contracts. Any other work is billed by the hour.
Costs have dropped in recent years because of the retainer agreement, fewer lengthy lawsuits and more OPS staff training on when to call an attorney. Baird Holm billed the district $1.42 million for the 2012-13 school year, down from $1.9 million the year before.
Andrews said the district currently spends an average of $50,000 per month on legal fees, including the $11,500 retainer payment. That's $10,000 to $15,000 less than monthly costs in the 2012-13 school year.