DeSoto schools' legal tab rises with enrollment

By The Associated Press

HERNANDO — DeSoto County schools are seeing an expensive side effect of rapid enrollment growth in recent years.

The district spent $1.26 million for lawyers’ work between 2009 and 2011, The Commercial Appeal reports.

DeSoto County, just south of Memphis, Tenn., has been the fasted growing county in Mississippi the past several years. It now has the largest school district in the state, with 32,311 students in 40 schools. That’s a 131 percent increase over 1991-92, when 13,946 students were enrolled.

Superintendent Milton Kuykendall said the expanding legal tab is not unusual.

“Large school districts are big targets,” Kuykendall said. “School districts must expend a lot of effort and money to defend themselves from lawsuits and make sure all contracts and actions of the school board are legal actions.”

In August, the DeSoto schools had a legal battle with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which successfully requested that the district stop prayers before football games over the public address system.

In February, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the DeSoto schools settled two lawsuits involving alleged gang activity after school system officials adopted a revised gang policy. The ACLU claimed the old policies were “overbroad” and violated students’ due-process rights.

“To be honest, if groups like the ACLU can get districts like DeSoto and Jackson to change policies, the smaller districts pay attention,” said DeSoto school board attorney Keith Treadway. “They say, ‘How did DeSoto County deal with this?’ if they face an issue they’ve never faced before.

“In taking on the bigger districts, these groups can avoid having to file actions in smaller ones.”

The Treadway Law Firm represents DeSoto County Schools at meetings; participates as counsel in litigation in state and federal court; and handles claims and complaints to various federal agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. and state departments of Education.

The firm also reviews and drafts all contracts entered into by the board; acts as local counsel for all bond issues; and advises the board and district regarding employment policies, student policies and construction issues.

District officials are considering ways to keep a lid on future legal costs, including hiring an in-house attorney rather than having a contract with a private lawyer, Kuykendall said.

Jackson Public Schools, which was Mississippi’s largest district until DeSoto overtook it in recent years, saw its legal costs rise from $381,000 in 2005- to about $916,000 in 2007-08 before the Jackson board hired a second staff lawyer, according to a June 21 report in The Clarion-Ledger.

The Commercial Appeal reported that Memphis City Schools spent an estimated $1.4 million on legal expenses last year, including all salaries and benefits for staff, all outside legal counsel and settlements.