San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

The amount the San Diego Unified School District spends on outside lawyers rose by $1 million in the last two years alone, despite expansions to the district’s in-house legal services intended to keep costs down.

Public school districts rely on legal advice to navigate the state, federal and local laws they must follow to educate kids every day. Districts also need attorneys when they get sued by those who claim they’ve fallen short.

Sometimes litigation comes from students, former employees, local residents or even media outlets, like Voice of San Diego.

From 2012 through 2017, San Diego Unified School District paid law firms more than $12.7 million, or more than $2 million per year on average, district records obtained by Voice of San Diego through the state’s public records laws show.

To put the amount in perspective, San Diego Unified could spend the same amount to fund roughly 26 teacher salaries per year, paying the district’s average salary of $80,798.

San Diego Unified’s legal bills reached nearly $2.69 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, not including the cost of the district’s own 10-person legal staff.

Faced with a legal budget of just $2 million the following year, school district leaders reorganized the in-house legal team in November 2012 and gave raises to several employees with expectations the district would save money on outside attorneys.

“In-house attorney salaries are approximately one-fourth the rates charged by outside counsel,” the 2012 staff report said. Earlier expansions of the district’s legal office in 2009, 2010 and 2012 “resulted in an annual cost savings to the district of approximately $500,000 in outside counsel costs. This (2012) reorganization further reduces the department’s budget for contracted legal services.”

How did that plan go?

Outside legal bills did drop dramatically the next two years, to less than $1.5 million in fiscal year 2014. But since then, legal bills have escalated, climbing $1 million in the last two years alone.

Legal bills rose from less than $1.5 million Superintendent Cindy Marten’s first year on the job, to nearly $2.8 million last fiscal year, records show.

Legal bills rose last year while district officials grappled with a budget deficit, and cut programs and personnel in an effort to trim $124 million off the district’s $1.4 billion budget. Not all those cuts were realized this year, though, due to increased spending on things like legal fees, pensions, an early retirement incentive and other costs.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee said bills in 2012 were especially high due to expensive special education litigation. She said the sharp increase in the last couple years happened because “there was an increase in lawsuits filed against the district. Those lawsuits were particularly complicated.”

Legal bills would be even higher had the district not expanded its internal legal team years ago.

The district’s in-house team of six lawyers, one paralegal and support staff handle “most of the district’s employment (PERB, arbitrations, negotiations, administrative hearings, and related advice) real estate, environmental, land use, charter schools, construction, public records, purchasing/contracting, government and special education work,” Magee said.

But “the district is not staffed or equipped to handle complex litigation,” so that’s where outside lawyers get called in.

District records show one San Diego law firm, Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton, saw its district payments rise the fastest in recent years, from $101,845 in 2015 to more than $1 million in fiscal year 2017, the most recent year available.

Among other things, the firm provides the district legal services for employment disputes, according to a recent district contract, and specializes in labor and employment litigation, per the firm’s website. Magee said the firm handles mostly tort litigation, or civil cases alleging harm or loss caused by the district.

The district’s ties to Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton are not purely financial. Several district employees were hired away from the firm, including San Diego Unified’s deputy general counsel and chief labor relations counsel, Kari Dawn Searles Sullivan.

Searles Sullivan was paid $220,700 by San Diego Unified in 2016, according to Transparent California data. Before joining the district, she worked at Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton from 2002 to 2014, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Legal staffers Julie Szotek and Jeffrey Day also used to work at Paul Plevin, before joining the district in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Magee said the rise in district work assigned to the firm is not related to the employees’ work history.

“Assignments are based on the areas of expertise and the high quality of work,” Magee wrote.

Meanwhile, fees paid to another law firm, Higgs, Fletcher & Mack, rose from about $333,000 in 2014 to more than $1 million in 2017, records show. Magee said they too handle mostly tort litigation.

Internally, costs for San Diego Unified’s legal staff have also risen, according to public records obtained by Transparent California.

In 2013, salaries for six attorneys and four support staff totaled $878,122. Add in benefits for those employees, and costs reached $1.095 million that year.

In 2016, the most recent year available, salaries for six attorneys and five support staff reached nearly $1.58 million, and total compensation including benefits totaled $1.94 million, records show.

Magee said pay raises awarded to legal staff in 2012 during the reorganization “have allowed the district to recruit and retain high-quality professionals capable of providing legal advice and representation.”

Districtwide raises and automatic movement on the salary schedule also increase pay year after year.

Magee said the majority of the district’s outside legal bills are often paid with money set aside for risk management, and school facilities, like the bond construction fund. The district general fund’s budget for outside legal counsel will be reduced next year from $245,569 to $145,569, she said.

(Note: The data provided by San Diego Unified reflects all outside legal costs in recent years, except bills for worker’s compensation issues, which are handled through a third party, according to district officials.)

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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