Omaha Public Schools, with a 7-0 vote by its board, has taken a key step forward by beginning the process of selecting an in-house attorney.

This decision will help hold down costs and structure the district’s legal operations in a more sensible manner.

The school district’s attorney is to handle day-to-day legal issues and also lead the district’s contract negotiations with employee groups. An outside firm likely would continue to handle litigation and other major legal matters.

With the vote Monday night, new OPS Superintendent Mark Evans will move ahead in overseeing the application process for an in-house lawyer.

This development reflects well on the district’s new board as it works with Evans in making needed adjustments and carrying out long-term planning.

It also builds on positive steps taken over the past year by Virginia Moon, the interim superintendent. Under changes she made, department heads have reviewed legal fees monthly and check to see that proper procedures are followed for seeking legal advice. OPS employees also received training in handling routine matters that previously might have led to calls for assistance from the Baird Holm law firm.

Making changes in attorney operations has been a key need for OPS.

The cost of legal services has long been a concern. In 2005-06, legal costs ballooned to a peak of $4.38 million. That was in the wake of the district’s legal challenge to the state aid formula and OPS’s effort to take over schools and land from suburban districts. For the budget year ending Aug. 31, OPS legal spending is projected to be $1.4 million.

That decrease is a welcome trend, but OPS still has been spending more per pupil on legal expenses than some larger districts. In Denver, the school district spends about $14 per student, compared with a rate of about $28 for OPS. That, even though the Denver district serves nearly 34,000 more students than OPS. Denver uses in-house counsel to reduce legal costs, as do some other large districts.

An overhaul of OPS’s legal services was needed for reasons besides financial considerations. With the new arrangements, the current board can underscore key principles that often were ignored in the past: The board attorney serves in an advisory capacity only, with the elected board members exercising independent judgment and taking the lead in setting policy. The board attorney also should not withhold critical information from board members.

With the changes already made and those just ahead, OPS is sending encouraging signals about its handling of legal services. This is good news for OPS and Omaha. It also confirms the strong leadership at the helm of Nebraska’s largest public school district.

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