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SD43 legal fees on the rise

School District 43 is dealing with higher legal fees for appeals, arbitrations and other legal business at the same time its funding is shrinking. - THINKSTOCK
School District 43 is dealing with higher legal fees for appeals, arbitrations and other legal business at the same time its funding is shrinking.
— image credit: THINKSTOCK

Cash-strapped School District 43 has seen a sharp rise in legal costs over the last four years and is looking for efficiencies at the same time it’s putting more money in its 2014/’15 budget to cover ballooning lawyers’ expenses.

SD43’s secretary treasurer, Mark Ferrari, confirmed that $415,000 will be set aside for lawyers for the next school year to bring the budget more in line with actual spending.

The issue has come up during public meetings on how to cut $13.4 million from spending to balance the budget with a local CUPE official suggesting legal costs could be reduced if grievances were settled locally instead of through arbitration

“Arbitrations are expensive,” said Dave Ginter, president of Local 561, which represents support staff. “They’re slow and that’s why it’s best to settle this on your own.”

Still, the longtime local president takes some responsibility for the sums spent on arbitrations for CUPE employees — which last year cost the district $134,755 out of total legal expenditures of $393,293 and the union $92,694 — but he said district management should take more responsibility, too.

TOO MANY ARBITRATIONS - UNION

Dave Ginter

According to Ginter, SD43’s director of human resources should attend more grievance meetings and settle more of the issues instead of sending them to arbitration.

“I deal with people who don’t have the power to make the decisions,” Ginter said of the meetings.

But HR director Jamie Ross disagreed, noting that people with the authority to make decisions already attend the meetings, although he will be there if necessary, and he said that the number of grievances could be partly explained by the process of bargaining, in which grievances are filed when the union isn’t successful at the bargaining table.

“It’s one of the tenets of bargaining,” he said. “It’s a safety valve.”

Ross promised to work more closely with Ginter on figuring out ways to resolve issues; this has happened with the Coquitlam Teachers’ Association, which Ross said has comparatively fewer arbitrations and with which he has worked out some serious employee issues.

Last year, for example, CTA arbitrations cost $37,324, and this year, so far, the district has spent just $3,465.

“I have had some preliminary discussions with Dave and we’ll be doing some things to move to a place that makes more sense,” Ross said. “He’s got a willing partner on that.”

Jamie Ross

But arbitration costs aren’t the only expense driving up legal fees. The district is also spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers’ feeds to handle Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy ACT (FOIPPA) requests, disputes involving students that can’t be resolved at the school or administration level, Criminal Code offences and BC Human Rights Tribunal cases.

FOI REQUESTS ON THE RISE

Last year, the district spent $86,960 on “general” legal fees (up from $29,098 in 2009/’10) for lawyers to handle custody orders and family disputes, FOI requests, Teachers Regulation Branch investigations, board policies, legal research and other labour relations and benefits issues. It is on track to spend roughly the same this year, racking up $60,846 in general legal expenses with law firm Harris and Co.

Legal costs for Criminal offences, meanwhile, cost the district $11,554 so far this year and $10,415 in 2012/’13, with the fees mostly related to the court case of a Coquitlam substitute teacher who was acquitted of sexual assault, sexual interference and criminal harassment charges.

Another legal area that seems to be steadily on the rise is appeals of principals’ and district decisions related to students. The district has seen lawyers’ fees for this area steadily increase over the last four years. This year, for example, the district has already spent $70,744 on student-related appeals, compared to $43,720 in 2012/’13, $48,242 in 2011/’12 and $11,928 in 2010/’11.

SD43 superintendent Tom Grant said he believes the district’s increasing costs can be blamed on a more litigious society, in which people are more likely to resort to legal measures if they can’t get issues resolved to their satisfaction.

“Not everyone appreciates the decisions principals or board members make,” Grant said at a recent board of education meeting when the issue of legal costs came up.

More money is also being spent on Human Rights complaints in recent years, including $18,122 spent in 2012/’13 compared to $9,814 in 2011/’12 (the district has only spent $923 on such cases so far this year).

The district has also seen an increase in other legal fees related to issues surrounding pension benefits and real estate, from about $11,000 in 2009 to nearly $60,000 this year.

Inflation is partly to blame, said secretary treasurer Ferrari, and the district is looking at ways to cut costs, including making sure staff don’t copy the district’s law firm unnecessarily in emails. “Internally we’re looking at controls and trying to see if we can streamline how and when people access legal advice,” Ferrari said.

The district has looked at hiring in-house counsel to reduce costs but other districts are moving away from that model, Ross said, because it’s not as cost-efficient as first believed. But other areas that show more promise are sharing services and fees with other districts, as well as possibly using the BC School Trustees lawyer in cases where the district is involved a class action suit that affects several districts province-wide.

dstrandberg@tricitynews.com

 

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