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Donna ISD legal costs are huge

$34k for one month?

By G. Romero Wendorf

For a relatively poor school district, you sure wouldn’t know it. Not based on how much taxpayers are paying for legal representation.

Because someone recently sent me a copy of the April 2015 bill for Donna ISD Attorney Robert J. Salinas, and it makes me wish I had gone to law school: $112.50 for a 30-minute phone conversation?

Salinas’ total bill for April 2015 is $34,562.50.

He currently charges the district/taxpayers a $25,000 monthly retainer and adds to that, an hourly rate of $225.

The previous legal firm employed by Donna ISD, prior to last year’s November election and a change of the school board’s make-up, which fired the old firm and brought in Salinas, charged the district an $8,000-per-month retainer. And for that, the previous firm did a lot of the extra foot work at no extra charge vs. the $225/hour that Salinas is now charging each and every month.

The April 2015 bill from Salinas includes these charges:

  • The bill’s first page includes eight itemized charges, which amount to $1,687.50. 
  • That includes $500 for a two-hour conference with another law firm concerning a lawsuit that’s been file against the district; an hour to review the final signed agreement concerning a lawsuit settlement; $112.50 (a 30-miniute charge) to prepare and email an opinion to the school district’s HR department concerning participation in the “Texas Envio Mentor Program;” and an hour ($225) to email the district’s HR (human resources) department concerning a grievance file by a district employee and to discuss the matter with his attorney.
  • The legal bill’s second page contains a $225 charge because the attorney, Robert J. Salinas, spent two hours reviewing a report from the TEA (Texas Education Agency). No word on whether it was a two- or three-page report. Also, he spent 1.5 hours in a conference with HR concerning the termination of some probationary contract; an hour to review a non-renewal notice to a school vendor; two hours ($450) to review Donna ISD defense motions to dismiss allegations of age, sex and gender discrimination in a case against the district file by a school employee; and a whopping three hours ($675) to meet with the superintendent and staff to discuss “roofing,”and “prepare a memo for the school board meeting.”
  •  The legal invoice’s final billing page for April 2015 contains fees that Salinas charged the district, which includes nine hours meeting with another attorney, presumably to discuss the status of the superintendent at the time; and to research contract law, prepare and email reply to attorney for contractor demand letter for payment. And “email copy to superintendent.” He also took 25 minutes (only $56.25) to “review emails” in reference to a settlement agreement.

Final taxpayer tally for April 2015: $34,562.50

But why is the legal fee so high?

I asked Board President Albert Sandoval that very question this week in an email – “With regard to the money being paid to the current school attorney vs. the previous law firm what do you say in terms of justifying the additional costs when critics say the district is paying too much?”

His reply: “The current monthly legal retainer/flatfee is greater than the previous firms. but the TOTAL monthly legal costs are on the average $10,000 to $12,000 less.”

But his counterpart on the school board, former Board President Ernesto Lugo, says he didn’t vote for either firm,the former or the latter.

“The point is, the one we have now (Robert J. Salinas) is a convicted felon, so he can’t practice in federal court. And without seeing an invoice from the previous firm,I can’t say who had the higher total bill.”

The Advance News Journal his fileda public information request with Donna ISD so as to compare the two: current legal billings vs. past legal billings from the previous firm “But,” says Lugo, “what I’d like to see the district do is hire a  law firm that has vast expertise in law related to school districts. At least the previous law firm had some; Salinas had little to none when the board majority hired him.”

Not only that, says Lugo, but to compare Salinas to the previous firm, is apples to oranges

“Before the current board majority came in (prior to the start of 2014) to power, the district did more than $100 million in new construction, so sure, there would have been a lot of legal work associated with that. But look at what we’re mainly doing now. Settling lawsuits, settling grievances. And on top of that, we need to build a new middle school. But what’s the board majority doing? Thinking about bringing in an outside company that will overhaul the entire district with a new energy program that will cost approximately $20 million. And what’s the profit from that? Two million? They would replace all the HVAC units, even the ones that are relatively new and in good shape, and replace them with new so-called energy-saving ones.  How long will it take the district to recoup that money? Then they want to hire a roofing contractor. And now we’re looking at a new health-care insurer that’s expected to cost the district $3.5 million more next year? How’s that supposed to work?”

Last but not least, says Lugo, “A $25,000 monthly retainer is still too high. It’s ridiculous compared to $8,000. Personally, I’d rather see it at $2,000 and make the rest strict fee-for-service.”

Advance Publishing Company

217 W. Park Avenue
Pharr, TX 78577
Phone: 956-783-0036
Fax: 956-787-8824