Tulsa law firm Rosenstein Fist Reingold contracts with public schools — “A fist full of dollars”?

 In the last three years, Tulsa education law firm Rosenstein Fist and Reingold has gained an increasing share of Oklahoma’s public education budget – some say too much.

By its website’s account, the law firm represents at least 300 of Oklahoma’s 520-plus school districts. Rosenstein has a heavy concentration of clients in northeastern Oklahoma.

The Tulsa Public School (TPS) District spent nearly $800,000 on outside legal fees during the 2010-2011 academic year, according to a school district spending report CapitolBeatOK obtained from open records resources.

For several years, legislators and others involved in education have complained about outside legal fees, in broader terms than Rosenstein Fist’s take.

Oklahoma City – where the public school district is similar in size, demographics and issues to Tulsa — spent $180,000 the same year, the education spending report shows.

Oklahoma City’s district officials say having an in-house attorney has helped contain costs. She is Tammy Carter, who earns approximately $93,000 annually. She is a full-time employee, based on an open records request fulfilled by Tierney Tinnin, a district spokesperson.

CapitolBeatOK reviewed legal fees for hundreds of public school districts, and most were under $10,000 per annum. Some were under $1,000, during the 2010-11 cycle.

Rosenstein has expanded its involvement in other aspects of education. During last year’s legislative session, Rosenstein helped beat back proposed legislation to cap hourly legal fees at $250.

Some points of interest over the last few years:

• Rosenstein secured $14.7 million in federal grants to increase programs in TPS’s existing magnet high schools. This consisted of $11.7 million and $3 million grants.

• In 2009, Rep. Chris Benge (then Republican Speaker of the House) announced Rosenstein attorney Karen Long, a Democrat, was being appointed to a five-year term on the Oklahoma Ethics Commission board. Brad Henry was then governor; Long became chairman of the commission, a post she still holds.

• The law firm was very involved in the founding of and deeply involved in the on-going operations of both school lobbying firms EdOklahoma and Heartland Consulting. Although Rosenstein shareholder J. Douglas Mann, arguably the firm’s key player, was instrumental in launching both, news announcements appear to distance the law firm from the lobbying firms. Jana Burk moved over from Rosenstein to work as a grantwriter for EdOklahoma. Heartland partners with former U.S. Senator Don Nickles of Ponca City (now a Capitol Hill lobbyist, who on Thursday, June 21, left the board of the Chesapeake Energy Corporation).

• Both entities offer services such as charging school districts monthly retainers for their services – to seek federal grants and federal earmarks. Tulsa Schools paid Heartland $180,000 in one recent year.

• Heartland and Rosenstein both took credit for obtaining multiple grants and earmarks totaling $5.5 million for a Chinese (language) immersion grant for the Jenks public school district. They worked with former Sen. Nickles and Sen. James Inhofe, both Republicans. Some time in the past year, the federal grant program was been shut down by the U.S. Department of Education, the Education Department’s web site shows.

Rosenstein has represented the Tulsa Public School system for over 80 years, said Superintendent Keith Ballard.

Having served in the superintendent’s post now for four years, Ballard recently announced he would leave next summer, saying among other things he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren.

A point of contention came at a Tulsa Board of Education meeting last summer, when board member Anna America said contracts should not be automatically renewed each year without exploring costs from other vendors.

She voted to renew the Rosenstein $95,000 annual retainer anyway, but said she’d be very reluctant to do so again without some research about legal charges.

Why, CapitolBeatOK wondered, were Tulsa’s legal expenses so high during the 2010-1011 school year?

“It’s related to a number of things,” Superintendent Ballard said. “We’re had some lawsuits, a lot of it has to do with our teacher effectiveness initiative.

“We’ve had a lot more instances of personnel issues since we’ve adopted tougher standards, We’ve hired an in-house counsel to try and bring that [$788,000 in 2010 legal fees] number down. We have not had in-house counsel.”

The Tulsa district’s teacher evaluation initiative has drawn support in the community. A briefing last winter made it clear it is more “home grown” than competing proposals, including one preferred by the current leadership of the state Education Department.

Ballard said the grant writing services Rosenstein provided predate his hiring.

Ballard said to his knowledge, Rosenstein’s grant-writing services don’t constitute part of the school district’s outside legal expenses.

Several years ago, Rosenstein hired Keith Ballard’s son Matthew Ballard as an education attorney, according to a Rosenstein web site press release.

However, Superintendent Ballard said his son does no work for the Tulsa school district. Rosenstein managing partner Mann leads the TPS work, Superintendent Ballard and other sources said.

Ballard said he disclosed his son’s work at Rosenstein when he interviewed for the TPS job four years ago.

News reports confirm that the younger Ballard works for smaller districts, particularly for the Claremore Public Schools. He also does work for other small northeastern Oklahoma school districts, news reports show.

In any case, a check of state education law (confirmed by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office) shows that Matthew Ballard’s working for Rosenstein constitutes no conflict of interest.

Ballard said the $14.7 million in federal grant money has been a major coup for Tulsa schools. It has been spent to bulk up programs in the district’s four magnet high schools Assistance Program and assist “high risk” students by offering them more challenging school work.

“The money was intended to expand the offerings at four existing Magnet schools,” said Superintendent Ballard. “The grant money for those Magnet schools ran out last year,” he said. “Of course we still have the programs that are going on in those schools and we’ll have to carry them on. I think they’ve been very successful.”

“We have over 400 kids involved in the culinary arts program. I think work is going well at Central in the fine arts program. I’m very pleased with what’s going on at Webster in broadcasting and digital media.”

Below, in a representative sampling, is a listing of some of the higher outside legal bills Oklahoma school districts paid during 2010-2011. It is not presently known if Rosentein still represents each of the districts.

Tulsa: $788,000 (has been represented by Rosenstein)

Stillwater: $645,000 (has been represented by Rosenstein)

Jenks: $335,000 (has been represented by Rosenstein)

Lawton Public Schools: $217,000 (has been represented by Rosenstein

Norman Public Schools: $219,000 (has been represented by Rosenstein)

Union (in Tulsa): $213,000 (has been represented by Rosenstein)

** Oklahoma City Public Schools: $180,000 (not a Rosenstein firm client, employs in-house counsel)

Kiowa: $135,000

Bartlesville: $107,000

Enid: $93,000

Duncan: $82,000

Shawnee: $81,000

Midwest City/Del City: $73,150

Broken Arrow: $66,160 (represented by Rosenstein)

Ponca City: $53,000

Moore: $50,000

Edmond: $46,000

Hilldale: $44,000

Western Heights: $44,000

Guthrie: $41,172

Total in this sample: $3.6 million