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Schmidt Speaks: Outside Firm Heading For Half-Million Mark

From George:

"When attorneys from the Chicago Board of Education appeared on December
8, 2006, before U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman to argue unsuccessfully
that the family of Marcel Valenzuela should not be allowed to intervene in the
Corey H special education case, the judge and others took note of the fact that
Kathleen Gibbons, who has long served as lead counsel for CPS in the case,
was not in court.

Story continued below.

   

Valenzuela, a kindergarten child, had been classified as being
developmentally disabled in a March 2006 IEP. In September 2006, Valenzuela returned to
his neighborhood school, Jahn (at Belmont and Wolcott) and his family found
that a full-time aide who was supposed to be assisting the child had been cut
from the Jahn budget. School officials demanded that the child's mother submit
to a new IEP and tried to reclassify Marcel from developmentally disabled to
behavior disordered, which would have justified taking away the aide. When the
mother objected, officials at Jahn threatened to arrest the mother and child
for trespassing.
   

The case was brought before the federal court on a motion to intervene by
attorney Matthew Cohen, who has represented many Chicago children with
disabilities over the years. In a rare and dramatic move, Judge Gettleman granted
Cohen's motion to intervene on behalf of the Valenzuela family.
   But the question remains: Why wasn't CPS represented by its own top
special education lawyer on December 8, when it suffered such a major (and as yet
unreported) defeat in Judge Gettleman's courtroom.
   

According to the lawyers who did represent CPS, Gibbons had to be at a
training session that nobody else in the school system's massive Law Department
could do but her. That's what was said when the case was called.
   

Instead of Gibbons, the arguments on behalf of CPS were brought before
the court by Terrence Burns. Terrence Burns does not work in the Law Department
of the Chicago Public Schools.
   Kathleen Gibbons is a Board employee who works for the Chicago Board of
Education in the school system's massive Law Department. She holds the title of
"Senior Assistant Attorney" and is paid an annual salary of $100,000 a year,
according to the most recent CPS position files made public. Gibbons has been
handling special education issues and the Corey H litigation for CPS for
several years, according to those familiar with the case.
   

Why CPS also needs expensive outside lawyers is never publicly discussed
in Chicago. Given that the special education cuts primarily hit Child Welfare
Attendants (CWAs) costing between $25,000 and $35,000 per year (including
benefits) and Special Education Classroom Assistants (SECAs) costing between
$30,000 and $40,000 per year, it's at least a question worth asking in public. Why
does CPS spend millions of dollars on its own lawyers and then hire expensive
outside law firms, at top dollar, to do the same work?
   

The Board's Law Department covers most of the 7th floor of the Board's
headquarters building at 125 S. Clark St. and currently employes more than 45
lawyers, most at salaries at or above $100,000 per year. Depending upon which
figures one checks out, the Law Department is costing CPS between $7 million and
$20 million this school year.
   CPS has had a number of its own legal employees in court on the special
education litigation since the issues surrounding special education heated up
last winter when CEO Arne Duncan announced that he had to cut $26.5 million
from special education programs.

Another CPS attorney who had been in court
during recent hearings regarding the Board's cuts in special education was Sherri
Thornton, whose title is "Associate Attorney" and whose salary is $125,000 a
year.
   

Terrence Burns does not work in the CPS Law Department. He works a few
blocks from CPS, at the Chicago offices of the law firm of Dykema Gossett at 10
S. Wacker.
   Instead of being represented by its own staff attorneys on December 8 CPS
was represented by an outside law firm whose main offices are in Michigan and
whose main work has been corporate law for more than 50 years.
   

Terrence Burns, a former Cook County State's Attorney, has been in court
on the CPS special education cases since lawyers representing the special
education students brought a motion for an injunction barring the $26.5 million in
special education cuts last summer. Between September 2005 and August 2006,
the  Chicago Board of Education paid $391,325 to Dykema for litigation for CPS.
Dykema began working as one of several outside law firms utilized by CPS a
few months after Patrick Rocks moved to CPS from City Hall as "Corporation
Counsel" and head of the Board's Law Department (at a salary of more than $150,000
per year).
   

According to information provided under the Freedom of Information Act
(FOIA), during the 12 months between September 2005 and August 2006, Dykema
Gossett was paid a total of nearly $400,000. The Board has not provided the amount
the firm has been paid since September 2006, but on November 15, 2006, the
Board approved a Board Report submitted by General Counsel Patrick Rocks (Board
Report 06-1115-AR2) to pay an additional $50,000 to Dykema Gossett PLLC.

The
Board Report read: "The General Counsel has continued retention of the law firm
Dykema Gossett PLLC to represent the Board in general litigation,
consultation, and strategy developments. Additional authorization for the firm's services
is requested in the amount of $50,000..."
   

When the bills are paid by the end of 2006, it is likely that Dykema
Gosset will have been paid a half million dollars by CPS in less than 18 months.
During that time, CPS was claiming it didn't have the money in its budget to
pay employees to make sure that severely disabled children, like those at the
Blair Early Childhood Center, could get out of the building in the event of a
fire. The CPS budget analysis that led to the special education cuts began a
month after the Board hired Dykema Gossett. The budget analysis was done by Pedro
Martinez of the Board's budget office and was driven from start to finish by
financial spreadsheets and data sets that did not take into account the actual
needs of special education students.

When the spreadsheets had been
completed, principals and special education case managers at more than 600 Chicago
public schools and branches were forced, between January and April 2006, to beg
the Board not to close special education teaching and aide positions.
   Nobody had to appear before the Board on behalf of Dykema Gossett as it
ran up its bills and was paid for legal work during those same months in an
amount now approaching a half million dollars.
   The Board voted unanimously and without discussion in favor of the
November 15 Board Report to continue paying Dykema Gossett, adding an additional
$50,000 to Dykema's bottom line.

Filed under: Events & Deadlines

Comments

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  • The budget is public information by law and a copy can be obtained by contacting CPS. Unfortunately sometimes you have to make more than one request. I think George is a definate asset to the site and I found his information to be accurate and on target. We need someone who is strongly pro-teacher and pro-student since the Sun-Times and Tribune both tend to be strongly behind the Board of Education and the Mayor. His posting help to give a more balanced view of the situation. I think Kathleen Gibbins should account for what training was so essential that it kept her out of court. I strongly question that any training could not have been done by someone else. If it is indeed true that no one else could do it then it speaks to poor leadership style, no one person should be indispensible and part of good leadership is to train others to take over.

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