The Omaha school district is on track to hire its first in-house attorney in the next two weeks, a move district officials hope will trim outside legal expenses that have cost the district more than $13 million over the past five years.
Omaha Public Schools spokesman Todd Andrews said the district was finalizing the interview process for the position and should forward a hiring recommendation to the school board by its Oct. 7 meeting.
The board voted unanimously last month to allow Superintendent Mark Evans to begin a job search for an in-house legal counsel and chief negotiator. For nearly 50 years, the district's legal work has been handled by Omaha law firm Baird Holm, and annual legal costs have averaged nearly $2 million in recent years.
OPS's annual legal spending has decreased since the 2005-06 school year, when legal challenges aimed at the state's school funding system and expanding the OPS district racked up fees of $4.38 million. The district spent about $1.4 million on legal bills in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31.
The board approved a retainer agreement with Baird Holm in December that caps legal fees for routine legal matters at $11,500 per month, though more complicated issues could result in hourly charges. Previously, Baird Holm billed solely by the hour.
By bringing day-to-day legal work and contract negotiations in-house, proponents believe OPS can save significantly. Instead of picking up the phone and calling a Baird Holm attorney every time a legal issue arises, the in-house attorney can manage standard legal questions and responsibilities. The district would still turn to Baird Holm to handle more complicated litigation.
Additional job responsibilities would include overseeing labor relations and collective bargaining agreements. Andrews said 34 people applied for the position, which would pay a maximum of $133,000 a year.