Letter: School committee knows very little about its legal bills

Posted 11/21/19

Dear School Committee members:

Last month, as you know, the school committee sued the Department of Education and one of your students in an effort to overturn RIDE’s findings that a …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Not a subscriber?


Start a Subscription

Sign up to start a subscription today! Click here to see your options.

Purchase a day pass

Purchase 24 hours of website access for $2. Click here to continue

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.


Letter: School committee knows very little about its legal bills

Posted

Dear School Committee members:

Last month, as you know, the school committee sued the Department of Education and one of your students in an effort to overturn RIDE’s findings that a three-day suspension imposed by the school district against the student back in March of 2018 was unlawful.

The ACLU has made clear its views about this lawsuit, and you have made just as clear your desire to pursue the case. Since an ACLU volunteer attorney is representing the student, the purpose of this letter is not to engage with you on the substance of this dispute, but instead to highlight a related significant issue — the unknown cost of this crusade to the Town’s taxpayers.

In that regard, we recently filed an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request to find out exactly how much money the school committee had paid its legal counsel to pursue this case, first at the school district level and then at the state administrative level. I was surprised to learn that you don’t know, and the public will not be able to learn either.

Our APRA request revealed that your attorneys, Whelan Corrente & Flanders, bill you every month only “by general topical areas; e.g.,‘Labor,’ ‘Education,’ ‘Grievances,’ and ‘Negotiations.’ ”

Those bills provide you no breakdown whatsoever of the amount of time, and therefore money, spent working on any specific legal matter, including this one.

As a result, neither the school committee nor, just as importantly, members of the public can even guess as to how much tax money is being spent in the effort to punish this boy, much less the reasonableness of that amount.

While the ACLU has on occasion sought information through APRA about other public bodies’ legal bills, I cannot recall another instance where the bills were provided in such an opaque manner.

The school committee’s failure to ensure transparency and accountability by requiring even minimal specificity in the bills it pays is, in our view, an abdication of its fiduciary duty to the taxpayers of Barrington and an abandonment of basic financial stewardship. Frankly, we fail to comprehend a public body’s lack of interest in giving any consideration to the financial costs of the litigation it decides to pursue.

Speaking particularly to this lawsuit: even assuming there was some justification for so doggedly pressing a case against a “great” boy (as described by the principal) over a year-and-a-half-old three-day suspension, and even if one ignored both the troubling reality and the optics of the school committee suing one of its own students, there remains the separate, but very legitimate, question of whether it is worth the cost to the town’s taxpayers of doing so.

Yet nobody — not even the school committee itself — is in a position to meaningfully answer, never mind discuss, that question.

As the school committee’s regrettable lawsuit against this family plays out in court, we urge you to at least begin to promote some minimal level of transparency and accountability in the matter. A simple step would be to require that the invoices you receive for the legal services provided on your behalf contain information that allows members of the public to decide for themselves whether their taxes are being spent in a prudent manner.

We would suggest that it might even be beneficial for you to know what it will cost the Town to have made a court case out of this.

Thank you in advance for considering this suggestion.

Steven Brown

Mr. Brown is executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU.

2020 by East Bay Newspapers

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.