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.