The Palo Alto school district spent more than $200,000 in the first seven months of 2014 in legal fees related to its cases and conflicts with the Office for Civil Rights, including just under $50,000 for attorneys to research, develop and follow-up on its June resolution criticizing the agency.
Details of the expenses emerge from legal bills through July reviewed by the Weekly, and include work by four lawyers and a "communications consultant" hired by the district's law firm handling OCR matters, Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost.
Following a Public Records Act request made by the Weekly, the district also released a 12-page document in its board packet for Tuesday's school board meeting restating its grievances against OCR that was prepared in July by attorneys, district staff, board president Barb Mitchell and vice-president Melissa Baten Caswell.
The document, titled "Recommendations: Suggestions to Improve Collaboration between School Districts and the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights," summarizes in 20 sections the board's complaints against OCR, which "have disrupted rather than facilitated" the two groups' "shared mission to safeguard the civil rights of all students," the document reads. It contains recommendations for how OCR should change its procedures.
According to the district, the document has been sent with cover letters to a range of elected officials and organizations, from the local to the national level: Arthur Zeidman, regional director of OCR at the Department of Education in San Francisco; Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary and head of OCR at the Department of Education in Washington, DC; U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo; California Assemblyman Rich Gordon; California Senator Jerry Hill; and officials at the California School Boards Association (CSBA) and the National School Boards Association (NSBA).
The district released one of the letters, dated July 29, from Mitchell and Baten Caswell to Eshoo, asking the congresswoman to "examine OCR's investigative processes carefully and to request active participation in discussions and review of ways those processes might be improved for all." The letter references an August 2013 meeting with Eshoo, which was not known publicly until now, and requests a second meeting with her.
Mitchell said Monday that their request of Eshoo "is focused on requesting support to have these kinds of conversations at the federal staffing levels, which only she could do," whereas communication with Hill and Gordon are to keep them informed and to encourage collaboration "when federal and state policy guidance creates confusion or isn't consistent."
Mitchell said the board has begun to schedule follow-up meetings with some of the recipients of this document.
She said that the delay in releasing this information to the public two months after the advocacy document was prepared is due to the fact that the board had no meetings during the summer, that the district was waiting for OCR to respond to two pending appeals of its Freedom of Information Act requests and that the board wanted to give new Superintendent Max McGee "some time to get his arms around the matters."
The legal bills paint a detailed picture of the activities of the district's lawyers and of Mitchell and Caswell as they prepared the June resolution and accompanying documents, as well as the work done after adoption of the resolution on June 17.
Repeated email and telephone conferences were held between the district's attorneys and Mitchell and Caswell from May 22 through the end of July, the last month for which records are available.
The billing records also provide insight into the district's growing frustration with OCR's investigations, as lawyers spent substantial time compiling information requested by OCR, researching OCR's legal authority and developing strategies for how the district might resist the agency's investigation.
The documents show two attorneys spent more than 100 hours in May prepping staff at Paly, Gunn and district administrators and then accompanying them to interviews with OCR investigators looking into the two high schools' handling of sexual harassment incidents.
In a memo to the school board distributed with the board packet for Tuesday's meeting, McGee committed to providing the public with monthly updates on OCR matters, beginning tonight. The memo provides little indication of McGee's opinion about the district's conflicts with OCR, stating only his commitment to "transparent, open, and frequent communications."
But in an interview Monday, McGee, who began work on Aug. 4 after Mitchell and Caswell and district lawyers had started spreading word of the board's resolution and distributing the 12-page summary document, said he wants to "dispel the notion that we're fighting OCR."
"This is not about an adversarial relationship; this about working to benefit our young men and young women and making sure policy and procedures are in compliance."
He said Monday he is "just getting up to speed" on the district's legal expenses associated with OCR and could not yet comment on them.
"If somebody were to ask me how much have you spent fighting OCR, I would say zero. If they asked how much have you spent responding to OCR requests, (I would say), 'We'll figure that out.'"
According to McGee's memo, the district still has two open investigations with OCR at its two high schools, both related to sexual harassment, and there has been no new activity on either since OCR conducted on-site interviews on both cases in May.
McGee also disclosed a new OCR complaint, involving a student's 504 plan and placement, which was filed on Aug. 21, but said that the district "inquired as to the specific nature of the problem and discovered it could be quickly resolved." He said OCR had informed him that the case would likely be closed soon.
Unrelated to the OCR cases, the district has spent upwards of $30,000 since March on its litigation with the family of a student with autism who, after moving to the district in 2013, sued Palo Alto for denying in-home education for the student.
The family of "S.C.," a 12-year-old boy with autism, moved to the district in March 2013 and sought the same type of at-home educational program for their son that he had received in his previous school district, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit describes him as a student with "deficits in the areas of fine and visual motor skills, sensory processing, behavior, and speech and language. He lacks the ability to communicate verbally and has a history of severe allergic reactions to food which is complicated by (his) pica behaviors."
Palo Alto district officials refused to continue the Pajaro Valley Unified School District's program, instead offering the child a classroom placement that it deemed "comparable."
The family initially appealed the district's offer of an in-school program to the California Office of Administrative Hearing, which sided with the school district in a decision issued Dec. 31, 2013.
The family filed a lawsuit in federal court in March, claiming the district violated federal law. The family's lawyer, Brian Sciacca, cited case law suggesting that the "stay-put" provision meaning the same type of educational placement as before should apply when a special-education student transfers to a new district and a dispute arises about the most appropriate educational placement in the new district.
In July, a federal judge sided with the family in an interim ruling, ordering Palo Alto Unified to provide in-home services pending resolution of the family's dispute with the district. The judge agreed with the family's "stay-put" argument and rejected the district's position that the it is required only to provide services that are "comparable," not identical, to the student's prior Individualized Educational Program (IEP).
The largest chunk of district money spent on the case was at this time. In the month of July, the district paid law firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost a total of $10,395.50 to research and prepare an appeal of the "stay-put" provision.