Millions in Legal Bills Stacking Up Over School Battle

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(Memphis) Attorneys are making major cash at the expense of taxpayers and Shelby County students.

Tax payers are coughing up millions to pay legal fees in the county commission`s battle to stop the suburbs from opening their own school districts.

Both county and suburban tax payers are paying higher taxes to help foot the bill, and the poorer you get the richer attorneys get as the school battle rages on.

“The only people who make out of this are the attorneys. That`s just the way it is. I wish it were different,” said Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald.

Those attorneys are Baker Donelson, and Burch, Porter and Johnson.

They’re the two law firms representing each side in the $4 million suburban school battle.

The real kicker is people in the suburbs have to pay twice for all these legal fees.

Not only do taxpayers in municipalities like Bartlett have to pay for their own legal team to fight the county commission`s lawsuit, but they must also pay for the county commission's legal tab because they live in the county and pay taxes there as well.

“If you really believe in something go ahead and do it,” said Fatima Agravant.

Agravant's 15 year old son Andrew goes to Bartlett High, and she doesn't mind higher taxes to pay the legal bills as long as her city gets to have its own district.

“If it's good for the kids and the betterment of all the students then go for it,” said Agravant.

Commissioner Walter Bailey doesn't agree and led the fight against the schools splitting.

“Do the municipalities take the students who do not live in the municipalities? That`s the concern. There`s a diversity concern,” said Bailey.

Bailey, who is an attorney, defends the $1.7 million bill from Baker Donelson.

He says the commission needs to stop the suburbs.

“We didn't look at the monetary side of it when it correlates with fee. We looked at how to get these issues resolved,” said Bailey.

The suburbs are all sharing the firm Burch, Porter and Johnson and splitting the costs based on size.

Bartlett pays the biggest portion racking up over a million dollars in legal fees because it's the largest.

“It's always frustrating, but it's the society that we live in. We are a litigious people,” said Mayor McDonald.

McDonald says the suburbs planned on paying up to three million.

So far they’ve used 2/3 of that.

All of the money spent by the suburbs is covered by the half cent sales tax approved last year to create six new school districts.

News Channel 3 obtained the bills showing how all that money was spent.

Thousands of dollars to fly in expert witnesses from around the country, hours of legal research and meetings, and dinners at fancy restaurants like Flight and Felicia Suzanne`s.

For example, it cost over $13,000 for just one expert witness who was flown in from Massachusetts.

That expert witness spent over $162 on two meals alone.

“I don`t think they have to go to all these places and I certainly encourage them to not go,” said McDonald.

But they did adding costs to an already expensive legal bill.

Arlington Mayor Mike Wissman is looking ahead and knows his city may wish it had all this money back.

“We feel that a lot this money could be spent down the road on the school system,” said Wissman.

With no one seeming to budge, and the bills racking up, the suburbs are ready to fight as long as it takes.

“It will go to the Supreme Court. This will be nothing compared to the millions that will be spent if we go to the Supreme Court. Talk about angry tax payers, we will be angry tax payers,” said McDonald.


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