News

Palo Alto: School district's OCR spending tops $366,000

Superintendent Max McGee presents data from 2011, defends expenses

The Palo Alto school district has spent a total of more than $366,000 in outside legal fees on Office for Civil Rights-related issues since late 2011, when the first of 11 discrimination complaints was filed through the federal agency, according to data presented by Superintendent Max McGee at the Oct. 28 board meeting.

McGee provided broad totals covering five categories of legal work done through September of this year. He said more than half was spent on expenses related to individual cases.

The compilation was prepared, at no cost, by the firm that does the district's special education legal work, Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost. It does not include legal fees from the district's primary counsel, Lozano Smith, which had limited involvement in OCR matters.

The five categories of legal work include:

• Legal expenses related to individual OCR cases, including all aspects of representing the district in cases, including communications with OCR, staff and board; preparation/review of data requests; representation during interviews; legal research/evaluation of file information; and assistance with communications: $273,077

• Policy and procedure development (including preparation of policies, administrative regulations and procedures; researching and resolving apparent differences between state and federal requirements; developing a Uniform Complaint Procedures process and materials to disseminate; and the like): $40,765

• Preparation of resolution criticizing OCR adopted in June 2014 (drafting, preparation for and representation at board meetings): $22,200

• Response to Public Information Act Requests: $24,007

• Training for district staff (including development of materials, conducting workshops and training sessions, clarifying follow-up questions): $6,936

The $22,200 McGee said was spent preparing the board's resolution criticizing the Office for Civil Rights investigative practices in Palo Alto does not include $14,500 spent on follow-up, including developing a 12-page set of recommendations created as a result of the resolution, or letters to various government officials. The 12-page document, titled "Recommendations: Suggestions to Improve Collaboration between School Districts and the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights," summarizes the district's grievances against OCR and suggests avenues for improvement for the agency. These recommendations have been sent to various local and federal elected officials, including U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo and most recently, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

McGee said he considers the resolution and the follow-up recommendation separate matters, so did not include the recommendation expenses in his report at Tuesday's board meeting.

"Since 2011, decisions have been made. Funds have been expended, and actions were taken. And you know what? Nothing can change that," he said at the board meeting. "So as adults, we can choose to live in the past or learn from the past."

Board members defended the legal expenses and expressed hope that the district is at last finding proactive steps forward on the issue.

"There isn't one of us that wouldn't have preferred to have spent the $300,000-plus in the past four years to pay for ... a teacher," said board President Barb Mitchell. "We need help from the community to change that dynamic going forward."

Both Mitchell and board member Camille Townsend urged community members with concerns or complaints to talk directly to teachers, principals, staff or board members.

"Bring it up the ranks," Mitchell said. "It's a much more ... cost effective, as well as effective process for resolving these local issues."

That comment brought a sharp rebuke from community advocate Andrea Wolf, who called such suggestions "disingenuous."

"Nobody started out by going directly to OCR," she told the board. "People did talk to their teachers; they did talk to their administrators."

"I don't understand the new advice because you seem to be saying that if people had just done this in the past, that none of this money ever would have been spent," Wolf added. "And that is what families did in the past and the money did end up getting spent."

According to the district's monthly financial reports posted on its website, Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost was paid $736,000 from January 2012 through September 2014 for all legal services, which includes all special-education matters and disputes. Lozano Smith billed $432,000 during the same period, according to the "warrant" reports, while construction and bond counsel Dannis Woliver Kelley was paid $509,000.

Comments

4 people like this
Posted by Selective reporting
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 30, 2014 at 2:31 pm

I watched the whole meeting. This article left out a key category of expenses: more than $24,000 to respond to Public Records Act requests from the press and individuals. McGee said that those Records Act costs were just for the legal costs necessary to protect confidentiality of students, not for the incredible amounts of staff time that had to be invested or the actual costs of copying all those pages. Time and money that could have been spent on educating our kids rather than providing years of emails referencing certain individuals or other kinds of fishing, etc.


5 people like this
Posted by counting
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2014 at 2:50 pm

There have been 70+ records act requests in the last two years.

Those requests - what was asked for, who asked for it, and the information that the district shared - are posted here: Web Link



7 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 30, 2014 at 3:26 pm

I appreciated Emberling saying that the cost of fulfilling public records act requests could have been reduced by more transparency. It's ridiculous for a public agency to hide what it's doing and then complain when the press wants to know anyways.


11 people like this
Posted by WhyEscalationDoesntWork
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 30, 2014 at 3:34 pm

I agree with Ms. Wolf. Per Ms. Mitchell's misguided comment: "Bring it up the ranks," Mitchell said. "It's a much more ... cost effective, as well as effective process for resolving these local issues."

Ahem... we tried this, and talking to the teacher, or the IS, or the Principal results in retaliation directed toward our children. Do you know how F*&^$! painful that is to endure? You wonder why people go to the OCR? Because escalation within the school doesn't work. DOESN'T WORK. READ THIS > DOESN'T WORK <

Want a great example? Ms. Townsend's comment: "board member Camille Townsend urged community members with concerns or complaints to talk directly to teachers, principals, staff or board members."

Ahem... I did EXACTLY THAT! I took my issue directly to Ms. Townsend (After the teacher, principal did nothing). She did nothing. Nada. Zip. You see, when you are told directly about a problem, and do NOTHING in response, then you are the problem. The Board does not seem to get it, the OCR is putting pressure on the board, because the BOARD IS IGNORING the parents who have ALREADY brought issues directly to them.

[Portion removed.]

Wake up Barb. Wake up Camille. You have had many chances to address issues, and chose not to.


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Posted by also counting
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 30, 2014 at 3:55 pm

[Post removed.]


9 people like this
Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 30, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Over $360,000 spent on legal fees to advance the Board's political agenda and to cover up for poor performance by school administrators - are you kidding me? As a parent, I can think of a lot of ways to have spent this kind of money to actually benefit children in the district. Let's start with an investment in Project Safety Net or perhaps training and support for aides in the classroom and at recess to support children who are struggling academically or socially and are targeted by bullies, how about support for teachers in rolling out Schoology or to better meet the needs of students with disabilities in their classroom. I'd be up for spending the money on solar panels to make our buildings more energy efficient or in subsidizing the lunch program until healthy meals could be provided at cost. I can think of a lot of ways to spend taxpayer money to benefit our schools. Barb Mitchell's political positioning is not one of them.


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Posted by Barron Park Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 30, 2014 at 4:20 pm

[Post removed.]


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Posted by Dave from Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2014 at 4:26 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


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Posted by Carmen
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2014 at 4:27 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2014 at 4:28 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


10 people like this
Posted by JLS mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 30, 2014 at 6:19 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

Readers should review the invoices from this law firm posted to the Weekly's website here: Web Link

According to these invoices, the district was actually billed not $22,200 but $33,976.48 for work on the OCR Resolution prior to its adoption on 6/17 (inclusive of a 12.2 hour day for Chad Graff that cost $3355 for that day alone) on 6/17.

From the period from 6/18 to the end of July (when the bills stop) the cost was $8,517.60. One assumes that the remainder of the $14,500 that the district says it paid to FFF for work done after adoption was done in the months between August and the present.

The difference between the $33,976.48 that FFF billed the district for the work on the Resolution and the $22,200 that Dr. McGee states the district paid is confusing and alarming. On the one hand, we have the actual invoices, which total to $33,976.48. On the other, we have the unsupported claim that it was over $10,000 less. I hope the Weekly will obtain an itemization from the district of the $22,200 number, compare it to the invoices, and ask that the district explain that discrepancy.

The bills themselves reflect some startling facts.

- Chad Graff's hours should be scrutinized. There are multiple dates on which he billed the district for 10 or 12 hour days. Does Graff have no other paying clients? Unless you are going to trial or working on an M/A deal, those kinds of hours are pretty hard to justify.

-Graff bills at $275/hour which is a very high rate to be spending so many hours. Does this firm have no lower-rate associate or summer associate (remember this was over the summer) who could work such long hours doing research and scut work and then have a higher-rate partner review the work? What about a paralegal? This is a very large number of hours to have billed out at partner rates for "research" and "file reviews" and "phone calls with Camille Townsend."

Graff billed just on the Resolution alone: 7.3 hours on 5/21; 9 hours on 5/22; 9.9 hours on 5/27; 10.5 hours on 5/29; 10.8 hours on 5/30; 9.2 hours on 6/2; 12.8 hours on 6/3; 11.2 hours on 6/5; 12.2 hours on 6/17.

The resolution is 2 pages long.

In addition to having nothing to do with our students, and nothing to do with the educational mission of our district it also appears to be reasonable to ask questions about the extent of necessity and prudence of billing all these hours to prepare this 2 page document. I just can't imagine why the taxpayers needed to pay for the number of telephone calls between Chad and Camille Townsend, Dana Tom, Melissa Caswell and Barbara Mitchell that took place on this issue. Dr. Skelly appears to have turned this matter over to the board members who proceeded to have many different and solo conversations with Chad while the meter was running.

-I think it would help the taxpaying public to have a flavor for some of the items on this list:

--5/27 Chad Graff: Prepare for meeting at District Office regarding draft resolution and introduction to resolution expressing concerns regarding OCR practices; email conferences with B.Mitchell, M. Caswell, K.Skelly, C.Young, and T.Hurley regarding same; Meet with Tabitha Hurley [district PR officer] regarding issues for follow up. Includes related travel. 9.9 hours X 275 = $2722.50

--5/28/14 Terilyn Finders, Crisis Consultant: "Reviewed and prepared message points regarding OCR." 1.3 hours = $273

--6/30, Chad Graff: "Draft cover memo to NSBA [National School Boards Association] representatives regarding Board adoption of Resolution expressing concerns on OCR investigation practices; conduct legal research and evaluate file information regarding same; Draft email to T. Hurley [the district PR officer] regarding same. 4.2 hours X 275 = $1155.00

--7/22, Chad Graff: "Telephone conference with C. Townsend regarding status of OCR matters, district position regarding same, Review and revise proposed attachment on recommendations regarding OCR investigative practices and outreach efforts regarding same; Email conferences with B. Mitchell and M. Caswell regarding same. 4.6 hours X275 = $1265.00

It is hard to imagine a greater waste of taxpayer dollars than that represented in these billings. We cannot continue to hemorrhage money into this morass. These bills should be scrutinized by every voter.



9 people like this
Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 30, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Retired Teacher is a registered user.

I say that there's an honored tradition in US history to fight oppression by various forces in our lives, included governmental forces and agencies.

What's the third amusing line: I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you.

Well, there is good help from the government--and then there's the OCR.

In this case, the OCR has acted with arrogance and disdain to try to pressure the PAUSD to distort its policies to fit the agenda of the newly-appointed head of this "government agency."

I say, the money from the PAUSD has, and will continue to be, well-spent, to bring this untoward pressure from an out of control agency back into balance!


5 people like this
Posted by Anonymous22
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Anonymous22 is a registered user.

Of the 2 settlement agreements, I believe in one the family spent 18 months at all levels trying to get it addressed at different levels in the district before going to the OCR, and I believe in the other it was 8 or 9 months.

[Portion removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by Anonymous22
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Anonymous22 is a registered user.

Retired Teacher,

The 2nd settlement agreement happened because the district was failing to follow, extend, or often even acknowledge its own processes and procedure -- that our district already itself wrote -- for following the law when it comes to protecting students with disabilities.

All of this could have been completely avoided by an attitude adjustment at 25 Churchill (cost $0 + a few edible crows).


1 person likes this
Posted by JLS mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Oct 30, 2014 at 8:05 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

[Post removed.]



5 people like this
Posted by Jason S.
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 30, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Jason S. is a registered user.

Clarification: the headline says that the school board’s OCR spending tops $366,000. But actually that was the school district’s spending as a whole. Only $22K of that amount was for the school board’s OCR resolution. The remaining $344K was for dealing with the various OCR cases, complying with OCR’s requests for thousands of pages of information and dozens of interviews with teachers and students, creating new policies and procedures, responding to public records acts requests, and providing training for district staff. That’s not the school board’s spending, that’s the school district’s spending. Only 6% of the total amount was spent for the OCR resolution.

[Portion removed due to inaccuracy.]


4 people like this
Posted by Natalie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2014 at 11:51 pm

Natalie is a registered user.

Curious as to whether the people concerned about these costs would have preferred if that the district had not developed the extensive new anti-bullying and complaint policies. That was part of the legal costs. And perhaps it would have been better if the district hadn’t spent resources on training staff to deal with bullying or discrimination? Or obtaining legal guidance on protecting student confidentiality. Finally, let’s talk about the 6 cases that were dismissed with no finding of discrimination. I have no doubt it cost the district real money to deal with those cases, even if the district wasn’t found to have done anything wrong. Starting with the assumption that all this spending was to advance bad aims is really disingenuous and unhelpful.


6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous22
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Anonymous22 is a registered user.

Natalie,
Characterizing the cases the OCR did not take as finding no discrimination is incorrect. The OCR is clear that it almost never looks at the actual cases, they say this in their FAQs. If you contact OCR with a complaint, they'll even warn you that they don't necessarily take a case even if it is a legitimate complaint. They are looking to see whether districts have the processes in place.

An analogy would be, if you had a court case but went to the courthouse and there was no functioning legal system, you could make a complaint to the governing agency. If the legal system was up and running, even if you had been seriously wronged and could win a court case, the governing agency might not take your complaint if they saw the legal system was up and running. You may have concerns about the fairness of the legal system, and may be able to go back with a complaint again, but if one was recently installed because someone else had to complain about a lack of one, the governing agency is likely to say the processes are in place.

That's what OCR wrote in their letters, that there wasn't enough evidence to be sure the district didn't have process -- OCR was not adjudicating the cases.

However, it is very relevant if the district people are making the same mistake you just did. If they think the appearance of process is enough, and that the OCR not taking a case means they were cleared of any responsibility to extend process and follow the law in those cases, then there could be cause for further complaints in the future.

Let's be real -- no one wanted to complain to the OCR, it's difficult, there are confidentiality concerns, and most families fear antagonizing the district. If the district people were as concerned about doing a good job for all kids as they were about their personal umbrage, none of that money would ever have been necessary to spend, and all of that training would already have been done because our district would have cared about being in compliance with the law and already been in compliance with the law.

We all know about the lawyers who tell their clients who caused an accident not to apologize, or the doctor who committed malpractice -- it turns out that advice actually makes a suit and larger payout more likely. Doing the right thing is cheaper. In the case of a school district, it also means we put the kids first.


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Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Nov 1, 2014 at 10:55 am

village fool is a registered user.

@Anonymous22 -

Thank you!


6 people like this
Posted by Patsy Mink
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 1, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Patsy Mink is a registered user.

One of the legal bills referenced in the comments above though relatively small jumped out at me:

“6/30, Chad Graff: "Draft cover memo to NSBA [National School Boards Association] representatives regarding Board adoption of Resolution expressing concerns on OCR investigation practices; conduct legal research and evaluate file information regarding same; Draft email to T. Hurley [the district PR officer] regarding same. 4.2 hours X 275 = $1155.00”


I am glad that McGee is pushing for more transparency in regards to OCR issues. In that vein I hope that the district will release a copy of the cover memo drafted by Chad Graff that was sent to the NSBA to accompany the OCR resolution. Why was legal research required to prepare this memo? I have grave concerns about our board’s affinity with the NSBA and do not want our district lining up in support of the NSBA drafted legislation (Inhofe S. 2451) to curb OCR’s authority to enforce civil rights in our public schools. This legislation is in opposition to our community’s high value for unity.


3 people like this
Posted by Roger Dodger
a resident of another community
on Nov 2, 2014 at 10:30 am

Roger Dodger is a registered user.

It absolutely kills me that the [portion removed] on this forum who are constantly howling about the incompetence and evil machinations of the district and the board, are happy to make endless public records requests that tie up district resources and personnel looking for a single name, and are ready to file a lawsuit at the drop of a hat, at the same time see no hypocrisy whatsoever in immediately turning around and whinging endlessly about the district having to pay a ton of money in legal fees to represent/defend/research/present itself in the consequent proceedings. Talk about cognitive dissonance!


3 people like this
Posted by SWE
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 3, 2014 at 9:46 am

SWE is a registered user.

It seems to me the district needs to reconsider how it is insured. District personnel end up behaving like there is a lawsuit under every stone, when actually, their behaving badly from their conflicts of interest appears to be failing families and causing some to get to the end of their ropes. Usually when there are complaints or lawsuits, it's just the tip of the iceberg. For example, for mass food poisoning incidents, even including very large numbers of people, typically no more than 1% will even report it. Major studies of malpractice suits found that even when there is serious malpractice resulting in injury or worse, typically only about one-fifth of one percent will file suit. My point is to underscore what I have observed, that the district is failing a great many if our kids, not just the few who are brave enough to stand up.

Behaviour of staff who serve as some kind of de facto arm of the insurance interests, means they act in ways that ultimately incurs more liability and fails families. Being in the insurance business might just be an irreconcilable conflict of interest for staff who are supposed to be prioritizing serving families.

I didn't see any endless public records requests on the link provided, only the result of the Weekly's standing order for transparency. Districts have to act with transparency. If the district did not behave as if there were a lawsuit under every stone, they would be able to have a far more constructive ability to communicate.

@Roger, i don't see any frivolous lawsuits. I see a very small number of suits that would never have happened if district personnel didn't behave so poorly. Transparency comes with the territory. If district personnel hadn't woven this legalistic-incompetency web for themselves, they would develop processes for handling communications without such expense. If a reporter wanted to know how many kids were absent last year from illness versus unapproved vacations, the district would complain complain complain and not be able to provide such run of the mill data without a huge amount if work, perhaps not at all. They don't ever set up processes to easily manage providing information they are required to provide or might even be helpful to families if they provided because they don't prioritize the data as useful for identifying and solving problems, all they see are headaches from having to micromanage and scrutinize every action and piece of information for its legal potential, especially where district people may have acted evil and incompetently as you say, and are inclined further to cover up. (It's probably not helped by lawyers who are getting a cash cow.)

Can anyone provide any history on why we are self insured? Do all districts self insure? If the reason was to save money, perhaps the full costs and consequences should be revisited.



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Posted by Those 183 Votes
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 3, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Those 183 Votes is a registered user.

"If a reporter wanted to know how many kids were absent last year from illness versus unapproved vacations, the district would complain complain complain "

No they wouldn't. This information is captured and available via infinite campus. The issue is where the district has to go through and redact all the information they provide in searches. That is where costs are incurred and have nothing to do with transparency but all to do with privacy. See the difference?

[Portion removed due to inaccuracy.]


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Posted by SWE
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 3, 2014 at 2:44 pm

SWE is a registered user.

"If a reporter wanted to know how many kids were absent last year from illness versus unapproved vacations, the district would complain complain complain "
"No they wouldn't. This information is captured and available via infinite campus."

Can you please be more specific? If someone wanted to know how many absences in a year were from sickness and how many from vacation or doctor's appointments in total for a specific school, where would I find that on infinite campus? Is the information broken down, so that it would be possible to look month by month? Because I know someone who asked just for the total absentee data for a school for a few years, and the district complained complained complained apparently and said it was too hard to even provide the total number of student absences, nevermind whether it was from illness or vacation.

Can you please point to any other resource available on district data, such as teacher absence days? Substitute costs? If I wanted to get information like that which taxpayers might like to know, would I find a ready way to receive such data that one would think the district would want to know themselves, or would they complain like they always do that virtually any request for information is an excessive burden, to the point that they rarely comply with information requests or spend more time complaining than just doing so (that's been my own observation).


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Posted by SWE
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 3, 2014 at 2:45 pm

SWE is a registered user.

I guess my second question would be, why would a reporter have access to infinite campus, isn't that just for parents?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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