When members of the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 board sit down across the bargaining table from the Riverside Brookfield Education Association (RBEA), the union that represents RB’s teachers and other staff, the school board members won’t be alone.

At their side will probably be Lynn Himes, a very experienced and prominent education lawyer who has negotiated many contracts with teachers unions.

At its Dec. 13 meeting, the District 208 school board voted 5 to 2 to hire the law firm of Scariano, Himes & Petrarca to represent and advise the board in collective bargaining matters.

Himes, who has practiced law for 38 years and has been with this firm for 25 years, will be the attorney who will work most closely with the board. He is a past chairman of the Illinois Council of School Attorneys.

In the 1990s he and his firm represented Komarek School District 94 though they no longer do so.

“I still see him occasionally,” said District 94 Superintendent Neil Pellicci. “He’s an excellent lawyer.”

The district’s negotiating team will soon be sitting down with the RBEA to negotiate changes to the current contract which runs until June 30, 2013 in an attempt to save $1.5 million to $2 million from next year’s budget.

District 208 school board President Matt Sinde says that the board needs a lawyer at the negotiating table.

“The past two contracts legal representation on the negotiating team was not there, and we felt it was needed,” Sinde said. “I think it’s an asset that was missing in the last two contracts.”

Although District 208 has not used a lawyer as a lead negotiator for at least 12 years, Riverside Elementary District 96 has used lawyers from Scariano, Himes & Petrarca to negotiate its last two contracts.

Justino Petrarca helped negotiate the 2010 contract with the union representing District 96 teachers. Scariano, Himes & Petrarca is the general counsel for District 96 and represents more than 100 school districts and educational cooperatives throughout Illinois.

District 96 school board President Mary Ellen Meindl says that it’s smart for school boards to hire a lawyer to help negotiate contracts.

“If you don’t have a professional or legal counsel on the board side you’re at a disadvantage, because the union will always have a representative,” Meindl said. “It’s in the board’s interest to make the investment to have the right person that is helping them negotiate, because they see the bigger picture. They work with many districts. They will tell you what’s going on.”

The District 208 school board chose Scariano, Himes & Petrarca after interviewing six law firms. They chose the firm over the district’s general counsel, Franczek Radelet PC, which will continue to represent the district on other matters and remains the district’s main law firm.

Legal help does not come cheap. Scariano, Himes & Petrarca charges an hourly rate of $230 an hour compared to the $270 an hour charged by Franczek Radelet, according to District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis.

Board members Laura Hruska and Tim Walsh cast the only votes against hiring Scariano, Himes & Petrarca, saying they preferred hiring another firm. They declined to say which firm they wanted to hire.

But the school board was unanimous in believing that the district needed to hire a law firm to represent it in collective bargaining.

The current contract is poorly drafted, Hruska said, and many matters have had to be hashed out afterwards, with nearly 30 memorandums of understanding agreed to during the contract.

“The contract language was so poor,” Hruska said. “We were unanimously in agreement that we ought to have legal counsel to write it properly the first time. We have, what, 30 memorandums of understanding. That’s not good for anybody.”

On Dec. 8 the members of the RBEA voted 95 to 5 to authorize its negotiating team to explore possible changes to the existing contract. On Dec. 13, the school board also voted to begin formal negotiations with the union.