Better options for legal costs?

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School district's trendline for legal fees is alarming.

A QUICK LOOK on the Google machine finds multiple sources providing figures for how much lawyers in Wisconsin get paid annually. Undoubtedly, the figures are open to interpretation and argument - that's what lawyers do, after all - but it gives some frame of reference for earnings.

The ranges we found include, at the low end, about $50,000 a year and at the higher end, somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000.

Now, averages obviously suggest some make less and others make more. As in any profession there are stars and there are, well, people who are not stars. Stars make a lot of money and, often, they're worth every penny.

THAT'S THE CONTEXT in which one may view a consideration of legal fees in the School District of Beloit. Admittedly, it's not an exact science but the frame of reference has value nonetheless.

According to figures from the district, this is what Beloit spent to contract with an out-of-town legal firm in recent years:

• $365,109 in 2016-2017

• $434,796 in 2017-2018

• $644,488 in 2018-2019

• $151,370 so far in this fiscal year

That's a grand total of nearly $1.6 million and counting. Any way you look at that, it's a lot of money.

The trend is even more alarming. From 2016-2017 to 2018-2019 legal costs rose by 77%. Even for government, that's an eye-opener.

IT'S COMPLICATED to analyze legal costs and relative worth because circumstances change and demand different strategies. It's not as simple as saying, "Wow! That's too much. Just stop."

But it does suggest the district ought to deeply study and consider other options to manage legal needs more efficiently. Possibly, an example exists just down the street at Beloit City Hall. Elizabeth Krueger is the city attorney. She works every day for a salary. She's a capable lawyer who can handle most of the regular and routine legal needs of the city. When she's buried in work or outside expertise makes sense, the option to contract out for services always exists and is used. But an in-house attorney changes the dynamic at least for day-to-day matters.

LOOK, WE'RE NOT saying employing a district lawyer is the right answer. Maybe all this expensive outside legal help can be justified. We will say taxpayers probably have their doubts, and board members should, too.

Likewise, if the district increasingly is finding ways to embroil itself in legal disputes, a hard look at improving management of difficult situations makes sense.

This much seems clear: Watching legal costs rise 75% every three years is the worst option.

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