Legal fees rise as leaders revolve in Caldwell

Superintendent shuffles, trustee recalls, an urban renewal project and regular board operations have caused skyrocketing legal fees in the Caldwell School District — with costs 10 times higher than two neighboring districts.

The Caldwell district has paid out $81,805 in legal fees since the start of the fiscal year on July 1. Over the same period, the Nampa School District spent $8,003 and the Vallivue School District spent $8,192 in legal fees, according to documents obtained by Idaho Education News.

“Urban renewal was huge, ad hoc (superintendent hiring) committee was huge, and the recall was huge — we had a perfect storm with all three,” said Jodie Mills, Caldwell’s curriculum director, who has served as the district’s interim superintendent.

Idaho districts and charters consult regularly with attorneys over questions on policy, special education accommodations and state law. Lawsuits often cause legal fees to spike.

For example, in 2013-14, the Blaine County district’s legal fees more than doubled the combined costs in Idaho’s five largest school districts. Blaine coughed up $558,674 to settle a 17-month legal battle with McKinstry Essention, a Seattle contractor that completed a series of building upgrades. Blaine County business manager Mike Chatterton said unusual circumstances led to an unusual spike in legal fees.

Caldwell’s unusual circumstances began to unfold in June, when the board ousted superintendent Tim Rosandick and deputy superintendent Luci Asumendi. Both have remained under contract — receiving full pay of $137,000 and 96,297, respectively — during this school year serving in what the district called consulting roles.

Trustees did not publicly explain the leadership shakeup. Patrons criticized the secrecy and then orchestrated a successful recall of board president Leif Skyving and trustee Amy Rojas, two of the three trustees who voted to oust Rosandick and Asumendi.

Throughout the recall process, school leaders consulted with attorneys who billed the district for items such as “final proof and preparation of resolution, accepting the certification of the recall election and declaring trustee vacancy.”

“The recall took quite a bit of (legal) time,” Mills said Thursday morning.

Mills was the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment until June 15, when she was asked to add superintendent and assistant superintendent to her responsibilities. Because she was new to the role and juggling many responsibilities, she said she has regularly relied on legal counsel throughout the year. Invoices show attorneys billed the district for phone calls and emails to Mills and other district employees.

The task of hiring a new superintendent added to the legal costs.

The process started last fall with a superintendent search committee. An attorney assembled resolutions for the committee, Mills said. The committee reviewed 16 applications before eventually giving the board resumes of three finalists.

On March 12, the board interviewed those finalists during a nine-hour executive session and hired Shalene French. But after responding to a complaint filed by Idaho EdNews, the trustees acknowledged they violated Idaho’s open meeting laws. They were forced to rescind their first job offer and start over. On March 21 the board hired French a second time during an opening meeting. The entire process took at least 15 hours of legal assistance. Caldwell’s attorney fees for March exceeded $11,000.

Urban renewal issues added to the bills as well. The Caldwell district receives more than $2.5 million in urban renewal revenues, that will result in new facilities, including an athletic training room and weight room at Caldwell High School.

“We were working with multiple agencies and agreements,” Mills said. “It’s really incredible for Caldwell and the community.”

Caldwell also has relied on attorneys for “non-litigation related services,” such as reviewing board agendas and employee contracts. An attorney regularly attends Caldwell school board meetings.

Idaho EdNews obtained 97 pages of legal invoices obtained through a public records request. Most of Caldwell’s legal services were with the White Peterson law firm, accounting for about $76,000 since July 1. The law firm of Moore, Smith, Buxton and Turcke billed the district $5,100.

Originally, Caldwell’s Clerk of the Board Yvonne McKee estimated the invoices to be 150 pages and would require four hours of work to retrieve, redact and copy. She sent Idaho EdNews an itemized bill of $345 to obtain the public documents. After an EdNews appeal, the fee was rescinded.

“My job is to estimate the expenses reasonably anticipated to be incurred and legally charge,” McKee said in an email to EdNews.