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Legal bills hit $5 million in schools suit Baltimore spends far more than state; costs still mounting; 'I think it's worth it'; Both hired experts; city used lawyers from private firms

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When city and state titans sent their lawyers to battle over the education of Baltimore's children, the taxpayers footed a tab that has topped $5 million and is still growing.

Baltimore has paid most of that -- almost $5 million has gone to private lawyers in the huge schools case that was settled Nov. 26, according to city records and interviews with officials. Some of the expenses arose long before preparation for the trial began.

The state has spent at least $280,000 while mounting its defense for 12 months, officials say.

Together, the city and state have spent enough to hire 100 city teachers for a year.

Bills are still arriving. The city has not seen invoices for the round-the-clock and weekend negotiating sessions in the month before the proposed settlement.

And the legal struggle isn't over. Now the city and state must dispatch lawyers to defend their hard-won proposed settlement against appeals and lawsuits by other counties, which are worried that Baltimore's financial gain is their loss. A suit by Montgomery County will be heard tomorrow by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

The city's final legal costs probably will be thousands of dollars more than the sum already documented.

Responding to inquiries by The Sun, city and state officials provided estimates of their spending to date on the three lawsuits that were merged into one case.

The three were the 1984 federal special education lawsuit brought against the city to improve services for disabled students; the 1994 American Civil Liberties Union suit demanding an increase in state aid for city schools serving "at-risk" students; and Baltimore's similar school-finance suit against the state, filed in 1995.

Maryland officials estimated their spending since August 1995, when they began fighting the demands from the ACLU and city the for increased school aid.

They kept their costs strikingly lower than Baltimore's by relying on the staff of the attorney general's office during trial preparation and negotiations.

The state's big reported expenses have been payments for expert witnesses ($114,000), depositions of principals, public officials and teachers ($60,000) and the temporary help of secretaries and paralegals ($42,000).

Baltimore's law department estimated that as of September, it had spent $4.8 million since the filing of the 1984 suit. That figure includes fees paid to private lawyers and consultants used for the cases, but not staff salaries,

A large share of that was spent in the oldest of the three cases, the special education lawsuit.

The city's costs include more than $1.6 million in the past decade for a lawyer appointed by the federal court to monitor the city's special education improvement efforts. The monitor's role in the school system would be reduced by the proposed settlement.

In addition, through a past consent decree, the city also paid fees and expenses for Maryland Disability Law Center attorneys, who represent special education children in the giant case.

Although the special education lawsuit is 12 years old, Baltimore's contracts show spending picked up during the last three years.

This coincides with increased enforcement of federal laws protecting the rights of disabled students, which spawned disputes that have prompted the city to hire additional lawyers.

More than anything, Baltimore's costs reflect its reliance on private firms in the disputes.

Neal M. Janey said that during his tenure as city solicitor, the volume of work and the expertise required necessitated hiring private firms.

Contracts and other public documents show that seven private law firms have worked on related pieces of Baltimore's school litigation during the past several years, charging rates ranging from $175 to $255 an hour. The Sun has requested copies of the bills, but the city Law Department has not yet released them, saying they must first be screened by a city solicitor.

When the three education cases were merged this year, the lawyers handling the largest pieces joined forces. Initially, there were tensions that required meetings to iron out strategy and roles.

"We have a great group with exceptional talent, but they weren't operating as a team," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who intervened. "The city solicitor was appointed by me as a quarterback."

Ultimately, a team emerged, led by private attorneys from three firms.

Abbey G. Hairston, former general counsel for Palm Beach County, Fla., schools, was the lead attorney. As of mid-September, her firm had billed the city for $1.6 million.

At her side were Paul Mark Sandler, who had been the school superintendent's personal lawyer and had worked on the special education case, and veteran Baltimore trial lawyer Wilbur D. Preston, who was added to the mayor's lineup a few months before the trial.

They hired witnesses from across the country, including experts in school finance and testing, and researchers who study the effects of poverty on children's learning. Then settlement negotiations began in earnest.

Was it good strategy or overkill? Was it a wise investment or an expensive gamble?

Last week, city officials said the cost of the legal help is justified by the size of the proposed settlement, a pledge for $254 million in increased state aid over five years.

"Wow," said Lloyd Bowser, a city school board member, upon learning of the estimated $5 million in legal spending from a reporter. "Wow, that's a lot. But look at what was at stake. It's a lot of money, but it was necessary to spend it to get the state to increase aid for our kids."

The litigation expenses have been paid mostly from law budgets rather than from school budgets. Still, the mayor and Gov. Parris N. Glendening said at public forums that the money spent on the litigation would have been better spent on classrooms.

Noting elected officials' comments, educators envision what $5 million could have bought for the schools.

"I guess you could make the argument that you spent $5 million and got $250 million," said Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union. "But you also could have put $5 million toward fixing things that are wrong with special education, or bought new books, or set up a couple days of paid training to help teachers improve their skills and student achievement."

Schmoke has pared the legal team to one outside firm, and Baltimore's costs in the school matters will diminish, he said Thursday.

"We won't have this battery of lawyers that we had before," he said.

Schmoke has asked Hairston's firm to stay on through the appeals, the General Assembly session and the reorganization of the school system.

When the city and the state went to trial in a similar school-finance suit in 1979, their combined legal fees were estimated at $1.5 million, The Sun reported in 1981.

The high cost of legal help this time around doesn't result solely from inflation; it is the price of political disagreements.

Several times during the past two years, city and state officials inched toward settlement, but disputes over financing and management kept them apart.

"This is our opportunity to set the record straight and to get money for the kids. I think it's worth it," Schmoke said of the rising legal costs at the height of the dispute.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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