Saying they were short on cash, Berkeley County school officials last August asked residents to open their wallets to help the district pay for crayons, notebook paper and other supplies the district couldn't afford due to budget shortfalls.

The community rallied and chipped in more than $45,000 to help with the "Stuff the Bus" campaign.

While school officials praised the effort and the difference it would make, the amount raised was just a drop in the bucket compared to what the district spends each year on outside lawyers to defend its actions and help navigate a complex web of laws that surround the business of education.

With 40 schools serving close to 32,000 students, Berkeley County has the fourth-largest school district in South Carolina, but it leads the state in spending on outside legal help, in part due to an ongoing State Law Enforcement Division investigation into ethics violations in the 2012 Yes 4 Schools building referendum campaign. Since 2011, the district has spent nearly $1.7 million on legal fees.

Berkeley County is hardly alone in its dependence on outside legal help.

Since 2011, South Carolina school districts have shelled out about $22 million - an average of nearly $100,000 per year per district - to law firms for assistance, according to a Post and Courier analysis. For some perspective, that amount could be used to pay for a new elementary school, replace 265 of South Carolina's aging school buses, or hire more than 450 new teachers.

The Post and Courier obtained data on legal-related spending since July 2011 through Freedom of Information Act requests filed with South Carolina's 81 county-level school districts.

Three districts, Bamberg 2, Williamsburg County and Florence 4, did not respond to the newspaper's requests and did not have legal fees posted on their websites, as required by state law.

The Lowcountry is well-represented on the list of top spenders from 2011 to the end of January. Charleston County's school district had the second-highest total for legal bills, with nearly $1.5 million spent - even though it has an in-house attorney on the payroll for about $150,000 a year. Dorchester District 2 came in at No. 9 on the list, with about $695,000 spent.

School officials and attorneys with some of the districts' go-to firms said the money is well spent because these lawyers have crucial expertise that helps districts avoid costly missteps in lawsuits, personnel matters, building initiatives, contractual issues and other areas.

But critics contend the price tag for this help seems too high and diverts money that could be better spent educating children.

"It's kind of outrageous," said Lin Bennett, a Charleston County resident and first vice chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "I'm concerned as a citizen of South Carolina and a taxpayer with the amount of money the school districts are paying to these law firms. The school children could use this money in the classrooms."

Patrick Hayes, a third-grade teacher and founder of EdFirstSC, a nonprofit education advocacy group, agreed.

"It's definitely a great deal of money that we could find better things to do with," he said. "Twenty-two million would go a long way to increasing pre-K instruction and other things that we know would help."

Complex issues

Columbia-based Childs & Halligan represents more than half of the school districts in the state, and since July 2011 has pulled in nearly $8 million in fees to represent districts on a variety of issues, from lawsuits to contractual issues. Duff, White & Turner, also based in Columbia, offers similar services and represents about a quarter of the districts. That firm collected about $1.3 million during this same period.

"I know people don't like lawyers and don't like legal fees," said Ken Childs, a former schoolteacher and founding partner of Childs & Halligan. "They think every dollar that's spent on lawyers is one that could have been spent on kids, and that's a legitimate concern. But there's an effective way to use legal services and an ineffective way."

Childs and his partner, William "Bick" Halligan, said their business has grown in part due to an increasing number of complicated state and federal regulations.

Districts have to stay on the right side of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Affordable Care Act and civil rights laws dealing with age, gender, race and disability, to name a few. In some cases, districts are still settling 40-year-old desegregation orders, Halligan said.

"My point here is that every move you make with employees, with students, with parents, is fraught with a consequence," said Halligan, who served on the Richland County District 1 school board from 1986 to 1994. "Every parent, every child can complain to an agency or to a court about any adverse circumstance, in some cases in a way that you wouldn't even think. What we're trying to do is figure the way through the wickets so that you can avoid the court and come out with a result that is happy for as many people as possible."

Easy targets

School districts are easy targets for litigation and complaints, particularly when job actions are involved, Beaufort County School Board Chairman Bill Evans said.

"People look at school districts and feel we all have deep pockets and it's easy to go after us," Evans said. "It seems like there's hardly anybody that we dismiss these days that doesn't come back and sue us."

State Sen. Paul Thurmond has noticed this too. He filed a bill that has been referred to the Committee on Education that would take away teachers' right to appeal if they are dismissed or do not have their contracts renewed - a move designed, in part, to avoid costly hearings.

"(The appeal process) is time-consuming, cumbersome and expensive," Thurmond said. "That money could be spent on education for our children."

Sometimes all it takes is a dispute between a school board and its superintendent, or the district and a special interest group, for legal costs to spike.

Fairfield County, with just seven schools and fewer than 3,000 students, "has had 10 years of incredible dysfunction," costing it $636,285 in legal fees since 2011, Childs said.

In the past four years, the district has dealt with a State Law Enforcement Division investigation into spending, accreditation problems, a state attempt to wrest financial control of the district away from the board and a lawsuit filed by a former superintendent of schools, according to multiple media reports.

"They've had one superintendent after another and all that," Childs said. "When we first came in, our fees were about $200,000 (per year) but now they are down to about $70,000 because we helped them hire a first-rate superintendent and that has taken care of a lot of their problems."

Going in-house

Beaufort County School District, which has been involved in a lawsuit about building defects, has spent $1.3 million on outside lawyers since July 2011 but hopes to lower that figure in the future by bringing representation in-house, Evans said.

"We think an in-house lawyer could probably handle 85 to 90 percent of our legal issues," he said.

The board has budgeted $180,000 next year for salaries and benefits for a lawyer and an assistant or paralegal, he said, but they still expect to spend an additional $50,000 or so on other representation.

Five school districts - Aiken, Charleston, Greenville, Horry, and Richland 1 - already have in-house lawyers to help them navigate legal issues on a daily basis. All five are among the top 10 largest school districts in the state, and all also hire outside attorneys to advise them on some issues. But only Charleston and Richland 1 also made the top 10 list of big spenders on outside legal help, The Post and Courier's analysis shows.

To some, it's puzzling that having an on-site lawyer wouldn't keep those outside bills down more.

"It seems to me, if you're paying $140,000 or so for an attorney to represent the district, you would think that attorney would be able to handle a lot of the day-to-day things, like dealing with dismissal cases and things like that," said Peter Smyth, a retired educator and co-founder of Charleston Area Community Voice for Education.

John Emerson, staff lawyer for Charleston County's school district, said that's exactly what he does. Charleston outsources litigation and legal expenses connected to construction, such as bond work and property transactions. Those require special expertise, he said.

"You can't prevent people from bringing a lawsuit and have to deal with it as it comes," he said. "It's unfortunate that tax dollars have to be spent for that, but that's the reality of it."

'Cheaper on front end'

Childs, the Columbia firm founder, said districts also seek legal advice as a preventive measure.

"In the old days, school people would call a lawyer when they got a lawsuit," he said. "Today, they contact attorneys when they suspect that a lawsuit might be coming. The cheapest way to use lawyers is on the front end. I have seen $50,000 cases that could have been avoided with a $500 consultation."

Berkeley County Republican Party chairman Terry Hardesty disagrees with that. He is part of a group that went to Attorney General Alan Wilson last year with concerns that Berkeley County School District's Yes 4 Schools campaign violated the state ethics act.

At issue is whether district employees worked on the 2012 referendum to generate votes for a $198 million building program during district time and using district resources. One employee has been indicted on an ethics charge in the ongoing investigation, and the district continues to foot her legal bills while she is on paid leave.

So far, the investigation has cost the district $57,614 in fees to Childs & Halligan plus $78,385 for independent counsel for the employees under investigation.

In addition, Hardesty settled a First Amendment lawsuit against the district earlier this year for $65,000 after he was prevented from speaking about the investigation during a school board meeting. Childs & Halligan was involved in that suit too.

In both instances, Hardesty and his associates offered to drop the charges if the district would apologize and admit wrongdoing, but the district refused.

"When you give a government entity bad advice and the taxpayers are on the hook for the fees, that's not good," said Hardesty, who served on the school board from 2006-10. "They have consistently given advice to Berkeley County School District that's costing them more money, which is why I argued, even when I was on the school board, that they probably needed new attorneys. Who's running the district, the board or the attorneys? It sure looks to me like the attorneys."

Berkeley County school officials have declined to comment on the ongoing probe but they have defended their decision to pay the legal bills of the employees under investigation, saying they believe those workers were acting in good faith.

Childs & Halligan also represented the district in 2007 when The Post and Courier filed a lawsuit against the district after the district refused to release the performance evaluation of then-Superintendent Chester Floyd, claiming it was protected by attorney-client privilege. A four-year Freedom of Information Act battle ended in March 2011 when the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper. The district spent $73,000 in legal fees on the issue, which is not included in the totals for this story.

District spokeswoman Susan Haire noted that Berkeley, at No. 4 on the list of legal spending, is the largest district in the state without an in-house attorney. She also noted that the district's outside attorneys have helped save the county $27 million by restructuring debt in recent years.

Advice on debt refinancing and issuing bonds generally attracts less attention than lawsuits, but it's another common reason districts turn to outside attorneys. Since July 2011, the multi-state McNair Law Firm has collected nearly $3 million from about 32 districts, including a $468,702 payment from Berkeley County this year.

Attorney Frannie Heizer of McNair's Columbia office attributed that figure to the complexity of handling some $350 million in debt Berkeley County has issued from the referendum and a refinancing initiative.

Like Berkeley County, Dorchester 2 voters also approved a building program through a referendum in 2012. Dorchester 2 plans to spend $179 million renovating and building schools.

With three new elementary schools scheduled to open in 2015 and a middle school the following year, the projects are kicking into high gear and so are the costs. So far this year, the district has spent $96,453 on bond counsel from McNair Law Firm and another $219,295 with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd.

Protecting investments

Sometimes building programs spawn lawsuits as well.

Beleaguered Jasper County, with just four schools and 2,850 students, has paid Childs & Halligan more than $217,000 since July. Not only was a federal investigation into the district launched in March by the IRS and the FBI, but the district also recently filed a $2 million lawsuit over defects in two schools. Berty Riley, Jasper school board chairwoman, said defects with an underground storm water system caused several sinkholes to form at both sites and the buildings also have leaks.

The district tried to settle its disputes over the problems without litigation but ultimately filed suit to protect itself, Childs said.

Sometimes those suits pay off.

Beaufort County School District was entangled in a lawsuit for 3 years concerning design and construction defects at Bluffton High School that cost it about $500,000 but resulted in a $1.2 million settlement. Among other things, the school's floor was peeling and its roof and walls leaked, Childs said.

"We ended up spending just over $900,000 on repairs, so we wanted to try to find a way to recover our money," Evans said. "I think it was worth it."

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.