Timberjay reports stunning legal fees at St. Louis Co. schools

map_tempMarshall Helmberger and Tom Klein at the Timberjay newspapers report this week that more than $450,000 in legal fees have been paid by the rural St. Louis County School District #2142 in Northeastern Minnesota over the past two years.

That’s a number that dwarfs what similar sized districts paid in the same period. In essence, the district challenged the fees charged by contractors in different instances, passed on settlement in some cases and lost in court. The only real “winner” was Knutson Flynn & Deans, the Twin Cities law firm they retained, who apparently works a little more expensively that the local firms retained by other districts.

Naturally, the story shows a great deal of sparring between the law firm, school district, and the newspaper. The Timberjay has proven to be a persistent gadfly and tireless watchdog of the process the St. Louis County schools used to reorganize and build new schools over the past half decade. This year the Timberjay lost a key Supreme Court challenge in trying to obtain records from district contractors, but then scored a huge victory when the legislature passed a law making such records public.

But the questions remain: why is a collection of five small schools racking up half a million bucks in legal fees? And why aren’t more media outlets as good at watching out for the public interest as the tiny little Timberjay?


  1. John Ramos says

    Because most newspapers aren’t interested in information.

  2. Mr Helmberger has asked some good questions. Some needed to be asked. One lesson to be learned from this situation is that school districts need to have an advocate who is well versed in construction methods, materials, etc. I believe that school board members, in general, are sincere in their desire to work for the good of the district and the kids’ education. Plus there is a turn over of board members with a big learning curve for new ones coming on board. But they are lay people when it comes to building projects. Or if they have contractor experience, they are lay people when it comes to educational methods. The superintendent doesn’t have the background to oversee much of the construction details. In a project as large as 2142 took on, there were bound to be unforeseen problems. And yes, the contractor wasn’t as straightforward as we would like. I’m in no way excusing the problems that arose, but it is asking too much of the board members to foresee these problems.

    Helmberger fought against the district changes right from the beginning. At first some of his suggestions revealed that he hadn’t spent much time in the classroom behind the teacher’s desk, nor much time in the buildings that were remodeled or shut down. Or at school board meetings. He rarely wrote about the real problems that existed. For example, both the Cook and Orr schools were within shouting distance of the very busy train track, which carries trains of well over 100 cars, many times per day. Just a few weeks ago, a representative from the train hazmat division spoke to emergency responders about the various hazardous chemicals that go through these towns every day. Helmberger wrote about the hazmat topic within a few weeks of that meeting with no recognition the at least now the school kids are no longer in close proximity.

    My other disagreement with Helmberger involves how infrequently he applies the same questioning approach to what has transpired with the new school in Tower. It is right under his nose, is a “public” school, yet the Timberjay had very few articles about the school’s board meetings during the planning stages, and little about the disagreements that caused some staff to leave prematurely. This has been reported on by other papers. Where are the questions about the cost per pupil?

    Helmberger loves to compare the costs of ISD 2142 to costs of other school districts of similar numbers, but ignoring the unique circumstances of district 2142. He loves to compare average costs to make a point. Yes, the legal costs seem excessive. And probable ARE extremely out of line. I do wonder, however, about the “average” legal costs incurred by the average small town newspaper compared to the costs incurred in the lady few years by the Timber Jay.

    Again, let me state that I’m not excusing everything 2142 did. And I do think that Marshall Helmberger asked some worthy questions. I just wish he were more even handed: report more on aspects of the project that are an improvement. Report on the educational changes in 2142. Apply as much critical questioning to the other school in Tower.

  3. John Ramos says

    You can agree or disagree with Helmberger all you want. The fact remains that he fought to get access to public records, which no other newspaper did. When it comes to large, status quo projects, I’m convinced that most media, and most people, prefer to trip along in blissful ignorance.

  4. Yes, I was trying to imply that when I said, “He asked some worthy questions.” And it is true that nobody else did, including most of the school board. And since school boards turn over members, coming on board during a big project is an even harder job than usual. I just wish Helmberger would ask the same questions in some other areas. In fact, I’ve sent him some suggestions regarding certain “situations” in the area which he chose to ignore. But he is, after all, just one man at one little newspaper, who can’t attend all these various meetings, including school board meetings, all that often. Just think, he could have scooped the larger publications regarding hazmat transportation or the VA clinic scandal. The information for both was right there for the picking.

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