By Eric Stevick and Scott North Herald Writers
EVERETT — The Everett School District has spent more than $140,000 investigating an underground high school newspaper and the teacher who disobeyed orders in support of the student journalists.
Most of the money was paid to Perkins Coie, a Seattle law firm, which billed the district more than $113,000 from February 2007 through mid-May of this year, according to heavily redacted billing records provided to The Herald under a public records request.
The district paid another attorney, Caroline Lacey of Olympia, roughly $11,500 to investigate the Cascade High School underground newspaper the Free Stehekin and its former adviser, Kay Powers.
On Friday, Seattle attorney Michael Patterson, who has represented the district on other free-speech litigation, submitted a bill for $17,370. He was hired this spring to examine the district’s use of a hidden surveillance camera in Powers classroom. Patterson’s bill is for that work, investigating the district’s own investigation, said Mary Waggoner, spokeswoman for the school district.
More legal sparring over the case is coming as the Everett teachers’ union and the school district engage in arbitration over whether the district’s use of the camera in Powers’ classroom was in violation of a labor contract. No date for that hearing has been set.
Exactly what the public has paid for in legal work on the case remains unclear because the school district and its lawyers have limited the paper trail.
Last week, school district officials supplied The Herald with 40 pages of billing statements. The documents contained little more than the law firm’s letterhead and monthly total billing amounts on just two of the legal cases.
The records had been stripped of details typically found in lawyer’s billings, including the dates and hours worked, description of the tasks done and the amount charged. Without that sort of detail, it is impossible to know what the lawyers did for the school district at public expense.
The district’s rising legal costs “could have been avoided,” said Mitch Cogdill, a lawyer who represents the Everett teachers’ union.
The district should have warned or brought disciplinary action against Powers and any student it suspected of working on the underground newspaper on school equipment after it had its first piece of evidence, Cogdill said.
“They could have said way back in the process, ‘Look, we think you are doing this or doing things you shouldn’t be doing and we want that to stop and if it doesn’t, it is going to lead to discipline,’ ” he said.
Available public records indicate school officials have engaged at least three law firms for advice and assistance on the investigation of Powers and the underground student newspaper.
The district suspended Powers in June 2007 and fired her in November 2007 after concluding she helped students publish the paper while using district equipment. Powers did so despite a direct order from Superintendent Carol Whitehead.
Powers and the teachers’ union appealed her firing. A settlement reached in April allowed the 65-year-old English and journalism instructor to return for another school year before promising to leave the district. She’ll be teaching English at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek through the 2008-09 school year.
Perkins Coie was paid nearly $18,000 for its work on the Free Stehekin investigation.
Through May, the law firm billed the district more than $95,000 on legal work solely focusing on Powers, documents show.
Cogdill, who represented Powers as an attorney for the Everett Education Association, believes the settlement was offered because the union was prepared to present evidence that the district put a secret surveillance camera in Powers’ classroom as part of its investigation. That was something the district had previously denied doing.
The Herald used records laws to obtain billings that showed the district spent nearly $2,000 installing the camera.
Days before the district turned over those documents, Whitehead acknowledged there had been a camera inside the room recording who entered and left the classroom. She’s repeatedly made the point that no illegal audio recording occurred. She also said the surveillance recording is missing.
The Herald requested copies of invoices from the law firms that did work on the Free Stehekin and Kay Powers investigations.
The newspaper asked for “All memos, e-mails, reports, notes, invoices and other correspondence or communications detailing or estimating costs incurred by the district investigating and disciplining Kay Powers and students affiliated with the Free Stehekin, since November 2006.”
The school district’s billings from Lacey, the Olympia attorney, provided detailed information about each hour she worked on the district’s behalf. The documents listed the dates and times she met with or talked to district leaders overseeing the investigation, as well as the time spent on interviews with students and teachers.
Invoices from Perkins Coie listed only total costs for work on the Powers and Free Stehekin investigations. All other details were redacted.
Waggoner said the documents were supplied to The Herald in a form specified by a Perkins Coie attorney.
“We produced all responsive documents,” Waggoner said.
Waggoner said the 18,500-student public school district was drawing a distinction between a previous records request from The Herald that included Lacey’s entire report, including her billings, and the request for all of the legal invoices.
“It’s a difference in two different requests asking for two different things,” Waggoner said. “In the most recent one, you wanted to know cost specifics on two topics. The records you got were cost specifics on the two topics you asked for. In (the Lacey bills), you asked for a complete investigative report. There you weren’t asking for specifics about the report. You asked for the entire report. The only thing which was redacted was student identifying information.”
The Herald from time to time has employed Perkins Coie to represent reporters in public records fights. Its billings are typical of those from most law firms, and detail the work done by lawyers on the client’s behalf.
Tim Ford, the state’s assistant attorney general for government accountability, said a 2007 change in state law makes clear that the public enjoys broad access to attorney invoices involving public agencies. Unless the information is otherwise exempt under state law, the only portions of invoices that may be redacted are work descriptions that “reveal an attorney’s mental impressions, actual legal advice, theories or opinions,” Ford said.
It is up to the government to “justify each redaction and narrowly construe any exception to full disclosure,” Ford said. Just because portions of a document contain information that is not directly responsive, the public’s right to the record is unaffected, he added.
Allen Funk, Herald publisher, said the newspaper is pursuing information about the district’s investigation because officials “took extraordinary steps, and perhaps some unorthodox ones” to gather information about the activities of a teacher and students.
“I think the unusual nature alone is something that needs to be brought to light,” he said.
The district’s annual legal expenses are less than one quarter of a percent of the overall $161 million budget, Waggoner said.
“It is regrettable that funds for education and funds for legal expenses come from the same funding source,” she said. “However, a school district is a complex organization with high liability exposure in such general fund areas as athletics, food service, special education, transportation, safety and personnel issues.”
Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or email@example.com.