The Palo Alto school board is set Tuesday night to approve a 2014-15 budget of $250,000 for legal services for the law firm of Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost. Fagen is the firm that the district is using to dispute the Office for Civil Rights’ handling of civil rights violations in Palo Alto. A resolution seeking to escalate that dispute prepared by Board President Barb Mitchell and VP Melissa Caswell will also be discussed on Tuesday night (see Web Link).
The board approved a 2013-14 budget of $140,000 for Fagen in the spring of last year, but is on track to spend $250,000 in this school year, according to district documents (see Web Link). District staff are seeking the same amount for 2014-15. Fagen’s contract with PAUSD was worth $28,525 in 2009-10, but has dramatically increased since and is now slated to hit nearly 10 times the level of 5 years ago.
Attached to the resolution are documents prepared by Fagen lawyers seeking to reopen the agency’s finding in a 2011 case that the district violated the civil rights of a disabled child who had been bullied, disputing the agency’s request to interview high school students in a group setting about how school staff handle sexual harassment complaints, and arguing with agency staff over PAUSD public document requests.
The district’s strategy of resisting OCR’s enforcement appears to follow a blueprint laid down in a secret June 2013 memo from then-VP Barb Mitchell, inadvertently released in response to a document request. In that memo, Mitchell asked what could be done to protect the district from "expansive federal requests for information or investigations, and/or protections from subsequently discovered 'violations' unrelated to the complaint, or when there is no complaint at all?" Mitchell responded to that release by demanding that the memo be returned to her and not revealed to the public (see Web Link).
Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost is the firm of Laurie Reynolds, the attorney who spoke at a January 2012 school board meeting on the federal civil rights investigation of PAUSD that resulted in a finding of noncompliance with federal civil rights law. Reynolds gave a presentation that was described by the Weekly as "incorrect, misled the board and the public and engaged in pure obfuscation." See Web Link. Laurie Reynolds was subsequently replaced on the district’s legal team with Chad Graff, who has handled the district’s dispute with OCR, along with Fagen partner Lenore Silverman. Graff drafted several of the documents attached to the Mitchell/Caswell resolution.