NEO schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers to negotiate teachers' contracts

You’ve seen strikes over teachers’ contracts, but have you ever considered the cost to you?

 

Our exclusive 5 On Your Side Investigation found Northeast Ohio school districts often spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on high-priced lawyers to negotiate teachers’ contracts.

 

With exception, we also found many school officials refused to answer basic questions about why they spent so much of your money to settle routine collective bargaining disputes.

Westlake weighs in

The Westlake City School District was one of the exceptions. 

Superintendent Scott Goggin agreed to discuss recent collective bargaining negotiations with us during an on-camera interview. 

Goggin started his job in the summer of 2016. At that point, negotiations between Westlake’s school board and the Westlake Teachers’ Association had already dragged on for about 18 months.  

“It was a situation where my experience with it primarily was through attending board meetings, and during those times, you could definitely feel the tension,” Goggin said. 

The talks were going so badly the union had voted to strike if a deal wasn’t reached soon.

Within weeks of Goggin taking over, disagreements over applying state mandates, the teacher evaluation system and salaries were settled, but not before the school board spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars.

Records show the district paid $115,414.50 to Walter Haverfield, a Cleveland law firm.

“When you look at the legal fees, that’s part of doing business,” Goggin said.

"That’s something that we’re trying really hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again."

 “When you look at the two contracts that a school district has with their teachers and classified personnel, that will cover probably 80-90 percent of our budget,” he said.  “You do bring legal counsel in to make sure that things within the agreement are going to be beneficial and also work within your organization.”

However, Goggin said he would like to avoid lengthy, and thus expensive, negotiations in the future.

“That’s something that we’re trying really hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

You can view the district's budget account information and invoices for teacher contract negotiations, which show a breakdown of all legal fees spent from 2014 to 2017, here.

North Ridgeville’s numbers

The North Ridgeville Education Association was concerned about teachers’ salaries. 

While they are competitive with other schools in Lorain County, the small city’s pay falls short of what neighboring Cuyahoga County districts, including Westlake, offer staff. 

As a result, it took approximately one year for the union and district to reach a contract agreement.  

A district official originally sent us an e-mail that said all labor negotiations since 2013 added up to $167,272. 

After we continued asking questions, district officials said they reviewed their bills and found they only spent only $77,642.26 on legal fees for their last two teachers’ contracts, less than almost any district we reviewed.  

However, many of the details of those costs remain unclear.

Unlike other the other districts featured in our report, North Ridgeville initially failed to provide the invoices related to their legal fees, despite our repeated requests.

On Sept. 13, almost four months after our initial request, the district fulfilled its legal obligation to provide the public records. However, the invoices are heavily redacted, making it impossible to determine exactly how much was spent related to labor negotiations. 

Superintendent Jim Powell agreed to answer our questions related to the legal fees. 

You can view the district's check query, which shows a breakdown of all legal fees spent from 2014-2017, including what was spent on teacher contract negotiations, here. 

Two tense negotiations

It took just as long for the Brecksville-Broadview Heights school board to sign off on a new collective bargaining agreement with its teachers earlier this year.  

On April 10, 2017, after more than a year of negotiations, they signed a four-year deal after hotly debating issues including salary increases and teachers’ evaluations. 

According to records provided to us by the district, administrators paid $103,533 to Pepple & Waggoner, a local law firm, during the negotiations.

Contentious negotiations cost taxpayers even more money in 2012. 

Invoices show the district’s legal fees added up to $234,372. 

5 On Your Side Investigators repeatedly contacted school board members to discuss the costs of the contract negotiations. 

Board President Kathleen Mack initially sent us the following statement: 

Although it took more than a year of difficult negotiating with our teachers and their bargaining team, The Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District reached a new agreement that now provides four years of labor peace and the ability to focus on other challenges facing our district. While neither the Board nor the BEA (Brecksville Education Association) achieved 100% of their goals during this bargaining period, the BBHCSD immediately and effectively came together to campaign for, and ultimately pass, a new operating levy that will enable the district to move forward confident in the support we have from our communities. As in all negotiations, both sides utilized ‘outside’ resources to assist in reaching an agreement: the BEA has a representative from the OEA (Ohio Education Association) and the Board utilizes legal counsel experienced in public education law and negotiations. Both sides highly value, and therefore compensate, their representatives; the BEA through their dues, and the Board through budgeted Professional Services expense.

The BBHCSD Board of Education looks forward to working with both of our unions (Educators and Operating Staff), our Administrators, our parents and entire community to continue our legacy of academic, athletic, and civic excellence.

 

Respectfully,

 

The Brecksville Broadview Heights Board of Education

 

However, we had asked why board members spent so much on negotiations. 

We decided to attend the board’s regularly scheduled meeting to find out.

There, Mack refused to answer our questions prior to the meeting, but told us there was a “speaking of the public” during their meeting, so we requested to ask our questions during that time. 

Here’s the exchange that followed between Mack and 5 On Your Side Investigator Sarah Buduson as it relates to the cost of legal fees for teachers’ contracts:

Mack: We only report out on these sort of questions in writing. So we can make sure we have the accurate facts. Because I'm sure that you want to report the accurate facts.

Buduson: Do you think taxpayers deserve answers about this? It's their money.

Mack: Sarah, I'll be happy to answer you in writing.

Buduson: Why can't you answer now?

Mack: Just like we do for everybody in the public. And we speak with one voice. And I'm board president. And we don't answer people and get into dialogue like this. We just don't think it's good protocol.

 

We wanted to give the elected officials another opportunity to answer our questions about how they spent taxpayers’ money during their public meeting.

However, when Sarah Buduson repeated her question, we were told our allotted three minutes to speak was up. 

 

 

Following the board meeting, Mack e-mailed us another statement: 

 

The total expenses for any negotiating session is dependent upon the length of time taken to reach the agreement.  The distance between both sides’ initial positions, the perceived strength/leverage of each sides’ negotiating team, and the pressure to reach settlement applied by the stake holder groups represented can all contribute to the length of time needed to reach an agreement.  Our Board feels that the cost to reach an equitable settlement for our teachers and staff was fair for the challenge presented and the conclusion reached – 4 years of labor peace.

 

 

You can view copies of the district's legal invoices, including those related to teacher contract negotiations, from 2012 and 2016-2017, here.

Strongsville strikes

For eight weeks in the spring of 2013, Strongsville’s teachers went on strike before reaching a contract agreement with their board.

Our review of their legal bills found the dispute costs taxpayers $236,049.38. 

Again, we requested on-camera interviews with school board members and administrators.

Superintendent Cameron Ryba, who was assistant superintendent during the strike, declined our request.

However, through spokesperson Dan Foust, he provided us the following statement: 

Thank you for reaching out and offering the opportunity for an on-air interview regarding your upcoming story. However, at this time I will respectfully decline your offer. Since 2003, I have had the privilege to be a part of the Strongsville City School District and Strongsville community. During those years, we have faced our share of challenges and successes. One of the greatest challenges was our teacher’s strike in 2013. Although this is a part of the history of our district and one that our students, staff, parents, and community will not soon forget, it is in our past. It is a past that we must know, acknowledge, and most importantly reflect and learn from; however, this past does not define us or our future. In the years since the strike, we have rebuilt trust with our parents and community. We have rebuilt strong partnerships within our district and city. We have laid the foundation for a successful future that will ensure that we are providing the premier educational experience that our students and community deserve.

You can view copies of the district's invoices that show all dollars paid out to legal firms and for teacher contract negotiations, between 2013 and 2017, here.

A week prior to the broadcast of our report, Ryba sent the following statement to his staff:

Good Afternoon:

 

I wanted to update you that throughout the summer, Channel 5 began to submit a variety of public records requests on our legal lees. They later shared that they would be running a story on school district legal fee expenses related to school strikes. In our last communication with Channel 5, they shared the story would air sometime this week. I wanted to first take this opportunity to update our staff on this story. Once it does air, the letter below will be sent to our parents/community.

 

Thanks,

Cameron

 

Read the letter Ryba sent to the district here. 

The Lakewood Way

Our investigation found negotiations aren’t always contentious and don’t always cost so much. 

In 1978, tense negotiations between the Lakewood School District’s administrators and teachers led to a highly publicized strike.  

After it was over, no one wanted to it happen again. 

“The Lakewood Way” was born. 

The district adopted what’s known as interest-based bargaining, and both sides committed to regular meetings with union officials.

Lisa Schafer-Gill, the teachers’ union president, and Jeff Patterson, the district’s superintendent, meet monthly to discuss their concerns and resolve potential disagreements. 

The pair said the process is difficult.

“It's time consuming,” Patterson said. “It's really hard work.”

However, by the time they formally begin collective bargaining, there are few issues to resolve.

It took them just a few weeks to reach their latest contract agreement.

Before negotiations began, Patterson worked out a flat fee with the district’s legal counsel.

The six-year contract cost taxpayers only $60,000.

During a joint interview, the pair also said the process does more than just save taxpayers’ dollars. 

“Everybody's focus is what we have to do in the classroom,” Schafer-Gill said. 

They said it helps create a “more harmonious atmosphere” between administrators and teachers as well as the schools and community.  

The worst offender?

Our 5 On Your Side Investigation found one Northeast Ohio school district spent more than any other to negotiate its recent teachers’ contract.

How much? 

The district paid a law firm more than $500,000 over 18 months.

Sarah Buduson will share that part of her story Friday on News 5.