Springfield-based law firm Ellis, Ellis, Hammons & Johnson represented the district in the mattat a cost of more than $159,065, according to an itemized billing statement obtained by the News-Leader through a Sunshine Law request.
The lawsuit announced July 31 by attorney Kristi Fulnecky — representing parents Erica Sweeney, Stoney McCleery, and Kristina Borishkevich — attempted to force the district to offer five days of in-person learning at the start of the 2020-21 year.
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In mid-August, the district only offered two days of in-person learning each week but that slowly grew, to four days and then five, as the number of positive cases dropped.
Fulnecky, a former Springfield City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate, has been part of other local lawsuits involving masking.
“The facts are clear: SPS has sustained considerable costs defending itself against a frivolous lawsuit in federal court, and the district’s response to the pandemic was unequivocally affirmed by the court’s ultimate dismissal of the legal action,” said Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for the district, in response to a request for a comment on the attorney fees.
“Ms. Fulnecky has brought several high-profile suits against public entities related to the COVID-19 public health emergency, all of which have been dismissed yet have resulted in significant legal costs for those targeted in court.”
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How much does SPS usually spend on legal fees?
The 34-page billing statement obtained by the News-Leader shows dates, description of work and hours spent by each of the attorneys involved.
The work included researching case law, preparing court motions, meeting with district officials, scheduling and completing depositions, responding to requests from plaintiffs, and preparing for and participating in mediations and hearings.
To put the $159,065 legal bill related to this lawsuit in context, the district spent a total of $181,901 in legal fees during the 2017-18 year and budgeted at, or just below, $275,000 a year for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 years.
In a typical year, that budgeted amount covers a range of legal tasks including collective bargaining with employee groups, preparing and reviewing contracts, responding to Sunshine Law requests, and consulting on personnel issues.
The suit asked the district to pay for parents’ attorney fees. The judge did not grant that request. The judge also denied a request by the district to have the plaintiffs cover the district’s legal fees.
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“We believe that asking for reimbursement of court costs and attorney fees is not only reasonable but fiscally responsible, as any resource expended by a public school is a resource ultimately provided by the taxpayer,” Hall said. “It is unfortunate that resources best used for supporting learning in the classroom were instead required for an unnecessary and protracted legal action during a global crisis.”
The lawsuit was filed against Superintendent John Jungmann, the Springfield school board, and board members Alina Lehnert, Denise Fredrick, Gerry Lee, Jill Patterson, Bruce Renner, Charles Taylor and Shurita Thomas-Tate. Lee, Patterson and Renner exited the board in April, when their terms expired.
Fulnecky alleged the district failed to gain enough parent input and the board largely left the decision to the administration.
The News-Leader reached out to Fulnecky to ask about her legal fees but she did not respond by deadline. Last month, following the judge’s ruling, she commented on the request.
“My clients are thankful they did not have to pay for the attorneys fees of the school system, superintendent, and school board members,” Fulnecky wrote in an email. “The parents had a legitimate interest in pushing for a five-day-a-week option for school and they think it is outrageous that the school board members and superintendent would even ask the parents to pay for their attorneys fees.”
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com.