The Tucson Unified School District board voted to pay $500,000 to the plaintiff’s attorneys in the decades-old desegregation case against the district Tuesday night, but vowed to continue fighting what it calls excessive legal fees.
The unanimous Governing Board vote provides the attorneys for the African-American and Latino plaintiffs $250,000 each — a fraction of the combined $2.2 million the parties have requested.
“I just have a real hard time paying them half a million dollars or even looking at $2 million that they are asking for,” said TUSD Governing Board member Michael Hicks, noting that he would prefer that the money be spent directly on students.
“This is not a slush fund. I find it very troublesome that this is going on and these individuals are walking around, talking about what’s best for our children and this district as they turn around and fill their pockets full of cash,” Hicks said.
TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez noted the district originally budgeted $500,000 for legal fees for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, but he took the time to outline other funds that are being funneled away from students as part of the desegregation process.
“This $500,000 doesn’t cover the special master’s salary for part-time employment, which at this point stands near $400,000 for the last two years of work,” Sanchez said. “It doesn’t cover the experts that have been acquired by the special master.”
The special master is a court-appointed desegregation expert whose role is to oversee the district’s efforts to bring racial balance to its schools — an effort that has failed, according to a recently released curriculum audit.
The special master recently asked to have an attorney, who is also a former special master, at his disposal for legal advice — yet another expense the district would have to incur should the federal court approve it.
“These are dollars we’ve budgeted to pay attorneys’ fees; it just gets tough when there are these other fees and other people are just showing upon the payroll,” Sanchez said.
While Sanchez railed against those expenses, the district is specifically fighting the request for $2.2 million on the basis that the hourly rates the plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking are unreasonable, time entries are insufficiently detailed to support the time requested, and the amount is excessive overall.
In their request, the Latino plaintiffs sought a total award of more than $718,000, which TUSD requested be brought down to about $240,000.
The African-American plaintiffs requested a much larger payout of $1.5 million, billing for time going back to 1983, which the district has argued against. The appropriate amount, according to TUSD, is about $435,000.
The plaintiffs are now seeking relief from the court, but there is no deadline for the judge to rule.