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School board to review law-firm contracts

Superintendent to ask board to hire general counsel

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Palo Alto Superintendent Max McGee is proposing to bring legal expertise in-house with the hiring of a general counsel for the district, a move he says could save the district money and make the organization more efficient and effective in handling legal matters.

But he is also recommending the renewal of contracts with four private law firms currently working with the district, despite sky-high legal bills over the past three-and-a-half years and one Board of Education member's belief that the contract with attorneys Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost should be put up for a bid due to unsatisfactory performance.

The school board on Tuesday is scheduled to discuss McGee's proposal to hire general counsel to advise the district on issues like special education, collective bargaining, employee and student discipline, the Brown Act and issues related to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. This person would also review and approve outside counsels' work, serve as the district's coordinator for Uniform Complaint Procedure (which addresses bullying and other discrimination allegations), investigate formal complaints, respond and monitor Public Records Act requests and "serve as an ombudsman for informal but potentially serious complaints."

McGee, whose tenure with the district began last August, told the Weekly Saturday that he previously worked with in-house counsel when he served as State Superintendent of Illinois and found it invaluable to have someone he could rely on on a daily basis.

He has vetted the general-counsel idea with his leadership team and school administrators, and nearly all were supportive of the idea, seeing plenty of instances when they would benefit from being able to consult quickly with an expert on legal issues, he said.

The in-house attorney would also attend school board meetings.

"Frankly, having counsel present at a board meeting when it comes to legal questions or parliamentary procedure -- it would be great to have that answer right on the spot," McGee said.

He emphasized that the position would be revenue neutral: With in-house counsel, much of the money currently spent from the district's general fund on private law firms could be saved -- "and then some," he predicted.

Review of law firms' contracts

An annual review of those attorney contracts will also come before the board Tuesday. Bylaws require board members to evaluate the work of all its law firms "in such areas as efficiency and adequacy of advice; results obtained for the district; reasonableness of fees; and responsiveness to and interactions with the board, administration and community."

McGee is recommending a renewal of the contracts with Oakland firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, which has consulted on special education and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights investigations; Dannis Woliver Kelley, which has worked on bond financing and construction matters; Lozano Smith, which has addressed legal issues having to do with personnel, the union and general governance; and attorney Dora Dome, who has consulted on bullying-policy development and trainings.

However, board member Ken Dauber, who advocated for cutting down on the district's rising legal fees during his campaign last fall, told the Weekly that he considers Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's performance unsatisfactory and will be suggesting that the board look for new legal support on special-education issues.

"We have a firm that I think has substantially underperformed at a very substantial expense," Dauber said Friday. "Renewing this contract to me is not in the interest of the public or the district."

Since 2012, the school district has paid the firm more than $900,000, according to monthly district reports on payments made to vendors. This is compared to about $830,000 paid to Dannis Woliver Kelley (out of bond funds, not general funds); about $490,000 paid to Lozano Smith; and about $61,000 paid to Dora Dome.

The district estimates $250,000 will be paid to Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost in the 2015-16 school year, according to a staff report.

In order to prepare for the annual evaluation, Dauber reviewed Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's correspondence with the district over the last two years. While he can't divulge what is in these documents -- most of them are protected by attorney-client privilege -- he said they illustrate the firm's failure to keep the district in compliance with special-education requirements and an unsuccessful, expensive approach to handling the district's response to Office for Civil Rights investigations. They also heightened concerns he had previously about a lack of transparency around the Brown Act and Public Records Act requests, Dauber said.

"We have been investigated by both the federal and state governments on various areas around special education including 504 plans, disability-based bullying (and) timeliness of IEPs (individualized education plans)," Dauber said. "In each of those areas, despite our legal expenses, we have been found to have compliance issues. Clearly we have work to do and we really need a law firm that is going to support the district in doing that work rather than not doing it."

In 2014, the California Department of Education's Special Education Division conducted a verification review of the district and found that Palo Alto was noncompliant in 10 percent of 3,388 items the office reviewed (that noncompliance rate rises to more than 15 percent when items irrelevant to determining compliance are removed from the total). In looking at 52 student records, the agency found that all 52 had at least one compliance problem, including students with overdue IEPs (individualized education plans), missed transition meetings and students who had not been invited to their IEP meeting.

In addition, nearly 14 percent of special-education parents at a meeting in January 2014 said that services were not provided to their children in accordance with their child's IEP. About 15 percent said that teachers and service providers were not informed of specific responsibilities related to implementing the IEP.

Dauber's said he's heard too many times that "the district's relationship with those families often seems too conflictual and too litigious." Many families who filed complaints against the district with the Office for Civil Rights described feeling like doing so was their last resort after failed attempts to obtain timely and satisfactory support from the district.

"We want a firm that is really focused on working with families to produce the best educational outcomes for children, given the law, rather than throwing up unnecessary obstacles to helping our most vulnerable students," Dauber said.

He also criticized Fagen Friedman for charging the district a "substantial" amount for public relations and political work, rather than strictly legal work.

Last year, the district spent just under $50,000 for Fagen Friedman attorneys to research, develop and follow-up on a resolution criticizing the federal agency, according to legal bills reviewed by the Weekly. The board used this resolution and a 12-page document prepared by lawyers to lobby several local and national elected officials.

Then there is an issue of transparency, Dauber said. For many of the Office for Civil Rights documents he reviewed there is a claim of attorney-client privilege, but the correspondence is between the district and the Office for Civil Rights, or among district staff about public relations. The lawyer is merely "copied" on the email.

"Much of this material was concerning policy formulation and public relations that clearly should have been public," Dauber said. "We want lawyers who help us to be as transparent as possible and to ensure public accountability for policy matters. Obviously, where there are legitimate student or litigation matters, confidentiality is appropriate. That is not what I see here."

Board opinions vary on effectiveness of legal firms

Dauber said he plans to propose Tuesday that the board issue a request for proposal (RFP) for a new special-education law firm. He pointed to a 2008-2009 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury reported titled, "Who really benefits from education dollars? (Hint: It's Not the Students)" that reviewed the legal fees spent per month and law firm contracts in each of the county's school districts. Noting that County Counsel charges much lower rates than private law firms, the report recommends that all school boards "should engage County Counsel whenever possible and leverage their buying power to negotiate lower fees with private law firms."

McGee defended his recommendation to renew the contracts, saying that his staff found the firms' quality of work, responsiveness and results satisfactory. The attorney from Fagen Friedman "has served us well," he said.

Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said Friday she supports the contract renewals.

"Staff and the superintendent have made a recommendation to continue to use our law firms and unless there's some reason that I'm not aware of, I would support it," she said.

Board member Terry Godfrey, who like Dauber was elected last fall and who also reviewed correspondence between the district and Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost, said Monday that key information useful for evaluating the firms' work is missing from the two-page recommendation memo.

The original RFP and performance metrics are needed to know whether the work is up to par, she said.

"I look at the packet and that doesn't tell me enough," Godfrey said. "I'm interested in the structure around the process. ... You don't want to do this kind of thing (renewing contracts) on autopilot."

She found reviewing the Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost correspondence alone inconclusive.

"It didn't highlight anything for me. I couldn't see anything one way or another (regarding their performance)," she said.

Dauber said there's value into looking into hiring in-house counsel, per McGee's recommendation. Inside counsel, unlike a private law firm, has a set salary and is evaluated based on how few legal issues reach its employer's doors, as opposed to financially incentivized private firms.

"It's clear reviewing these documents that the level of control that the district was able to exercise over both the bills and the legal strategy just wasn't what it should have been," Dauber said. "We just didn't have the kind of control over our law firms that I think is good practice."

Godfrey said she sees a potential advantage in hiring counsel who would be able to oversee the work of the other law firms, though she questioned whether such a hire would render the district's overall legal expenditures revenue neutral.

"We will always need specialized firms" in addition to general counsel, she said.

Tuesday's board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.

Related content:

Legal costs soar as Palo Alto school board begins OCR lobbying

Editorial: As district lawyers step in, disappointing spin begins

School lawyer: "We are not rehashing this anymore."

In secret, school board weighs not cooperating with federal agency

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


35 people like this
Posted by Elementary Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 6, 2015 at 9:32 pm

This firm should go. Their billings are outrageous. This is highway robbery. That money should have been spent in the classroom!

25 people like this
Posted by Stop destroying trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 6, 2015 at 10:14 pm

The trouble with what has happened, and that won't be solved with in house counsel, is that the lawyers end up working for the interests of the people in the district office, often even against families and against the educational or liability interests of the district. Having in house counsel sounds to me like a free ticket to bully families who will then have zero recourse. Not having a lawyer at beck and call may be convenient for McGee but we pay him more than Governor Brown, he can handle it. We should go with County Counsel. We should also spell out when ethically the employees in the district office can and cannot use legal services because they seem ro be using our money to cover their misdeeds.

McGee hasnt seen what is wrong because he hasnt wanted to. Instead of realizing people are reasonable and trying to give him time, he's going for entrenching. Or maybe he's heard a number of complaints coming down the pipeline because he has refused to delve deeper. Administration on site were such bullies this year, I'm skeptical their input is helpful.

I have defended McGee and had high hopes for him. But saying something so Skellyish makes it clear the claws are sunk in him, too.

18 people like this
Posted by pot kettle
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 6, 2015 at 10:30 pm

"[Dauber] considers Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's performance unsatisfactory"

Dauber considers the performance of lawyers holding OCR's feet to fire to provide transparency unsatisfactory? Why am I not surprised. Apparently, according to Dauber, transparency is for other people to adhere to.

22 people like this
Posted by Stop destroying trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 6, 2015 at 10:38 pm

Think about this, parents. We had 50 kids hauled from school to hospitals for depression last year alone, and 200 on suicide watch lists. Do you know how vulnerable you are? What recourse do you even have now if someone in the district doesnt like you? Are you comfortable with the school sending every email you send to your child's teachers or the principal through people capable of doing vengeful things against your family AND through the lawyers, behind your back and no recourse to even know about it? Do you know what it's like to have every interaction with school personnel treated like you might possibly sue because of their over-legalizing everything so they whitewash and even lie constantly?

Worse, our district currently mostly deals with "problem" parents by making life hell for them. This is a way to more efficiently make them leave, rather than solving problems. A giant mess down the road, if you ask me. Look at the excuse used to hire Tbitha Hurley - the district said they needed a communications person to answer all those information requests. Since McGee took over, many people havent been able to get the district to even acknowledge records requests, much less fill them. They just ignore. Now, if someone complains to, say, the agency that endorces FERPA, who is acting in the best interests of the district? The one who goes back to the CYA and uses district legal against parents and like their own private counsel (against the interests of kids), or the one who realizes that there are laws that protect students and make districts better because they are accountable to the public that pays their huge salaries?

Parents of depressed kids should be very, very afraid. For McGee to say that about FFF is chilling.

21 people like this
Posted by Fire the firms
a resident of another community
on Jun 6, 2015 at 11:08 pm

Hire one lawyer and get rid of the law firms except for litigation (for which the firms can be monitored by the new in-house attorney).

22 people like this
Posted by Stop destroying trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2015 at 4:53 am

&Fire the firms,
I agree with you on firing the firms. But we shouldn't replace with in house council. The culture at 25 Churchill is still way too us against them, meaning, administrators ( some pretty unethical but slick that McGee now seems all but taken in by) against families. Imagine having a lawyer in the group. It just seems geared to continuing this path of heavyhanded overlegalizing of everything instead of just doing their jobs. Both OCR settlement agreements, for example. Never would have been necessary if district people just admitted to having procedures and followed them. Imagine now, the district has an in house lawyer to harrass families trying to complain about problems. Now they dont even have to report the legal fees to face the music. Dealing with and fixing problems may be uncomfortable for them, but that's part of their job. Unfortunately, we pay them so much, and have so little mechanism for accountability, they are all about their position at the expense of doing the best for families, including solving problems for them (as opposed to making life hell so they leave). Again, with so many depressed children, or children with mental health records now, and given McGees inability or unwillingness to clean up the culture at Churchill and restore trust, bringing in an in house lawyer does not portend well. Covering up a festering wound even better will only make the rot worse.

17 people like this
Posted by Retired Lawyer
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 7, 2015 at 7:25 am

The article says: "In order to prepare for the annual evaluation, Dauber reviewed Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's correspondence with the district over the last two years."

Question: Did Max or any of the other board members make a similar review of FFF's correspondence and/or billings with the district over the past two years? Are their recommendations based on this kind of review? It would be good to know more about what information went into the others' recommendations.

Dauber raised this issue during the fall election campaign, about the extraordinarily high legal fees, as did other candidates, and now has made good on his promise to examine this question closely if elected.

Because of the attorney-client privilege, and privacy of student information, the public is shielded from much of what goes on with the lawyers, so it is up to our elected trustees to do the due diligence to make sure these important and costly relationships with the lawyers are serving the district well. Money spent on lawyers could be used for students instead, and that cost/benefit trade-off needs to be upper-most in school leaders' minds when making choices about legal strategies and how much to sink into lawyers' pockets.

I hope to hear more from the other board members and Max about the basis of their recommendations on these firm contracts. Given the level of expenditure, and given the level of controversy, the public deserves a close eye on the role played by these lawyers in district decisions, policies and even apparently, public relations strategies.

50 people like this
Posted by Ebbie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2015 at 8:19 am

I googled around about Fagen Friedman and Fulfrost. I found a few red flags about overbilling and this law firm.

Fagen was formed in 2006 when the Managing Partner of Lozano Smith (Peter Fagen) and the head of the Special Ed practice Howard Fulfrost, along with a Special Ed partner Howard Friedman all left Lozano Smith (PAUSD's other firm) in the wake of a 2005 U.S. District Court opinion that sanctioned the Lozano special ed lawyers for billing a Calaveras County school Bret Harte High School $500,000 to prevent having to spend $23,000 on services for a special ed student. The judge imposed Rule 11 sanctions (very very rare) and ordered the entire firm (every lawyer in it) to ethics training, and ordered the law firm to pay fines to the student.


Web Link

Web Link

Web Link

The next year that entire group left Lozano and rebranded itself as FFF. PAUSD appears to have hired FFF without an RFP, merely continuing with the same lawyers from the same firm, now with a new name, that had just been sanctioned for overbilling.

Unsurprisingly, despite the ethics training and the new name, the same problems continue to come up. For example, in 2012, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that FFF led an aggressive litigation effort in Solana Beach in which FFF billed over $300,000 prevent paying out $6,000 in private school tuition for a kindergarten student. The parents said any disabilities were mild wanted her included, and the district insisted on full day special ed with no inclusion. The parents placed her in an inclusive private program at $6100 per year where she thrived.

In that case, FFF lost at every stage of the process, which meant that the district ended up paying the student's fees as well. And because FFF fought so hard and appealed to the Ninth Circuit and then tried to go to the Supreme Court (which refused to hear the case) the family's fees were also over $500,000.

The rationale for that ridiculous wild goose chase sounds remarkably like the kind of advice PAUSD gets from FFF (and that Bret Harte got from FFF. According to the Solana school board president: “Of course it would have been far better to settle this case. The problem is, at the time, if you start settling all these cases, what message are you sending?” They were evidently told that allowing special ed funding in this case would "set a precedent" and they had to fight like hellcats to avoid that. What FFF probably didn't tell them is that every case in IDEA is individual and unique and all are also confidential. Nothing sets a "precedent" so they spent $1million dollars in fees to avoid something that couldn't happen anyway.

"At the start of a Feb. 17, 2012 hearing, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman said, “I am just curious. This whole dispute is about

counsel fees I assume. Nobody in their right economic mind would be carrying a case to the Ninth Circuit that seems to me to involve something like $6,000 to $7,000.”

As the mom of the kinder student remarked: "“I was thinking, what a monumental waste... It just seemed like the only ones winning were their lawyers."

See: Web Link

That sounds familiar.

Reading articles like these it is clear that PAUSD is only the latest in a string of clients with which this firm has been involved that have been very similar to the OCR debacle.

The results delivered do not justify the dollars expended, but because they are taxpayer dollars they are treated by district staff including Kevin Skelly, Holly Wade, and the board members -- Caswell, Barbara Mitchell, Dana Tom, Camille Townsend, and Heidi Emberling -- as Monopoly Money that they could spend with wild abandon.

The first rule of holes is stop digging. But to FFF, the first rule of holes seems to be "everybody into the hole, we need more shovels!"

I hope that Dauber can get us out of the hole.

4 people like this
Posted by quid pro quo?
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 7, 2015 at 10:14 am

"the family's fees were also over $500,000. "

Wow! A family would invest $500,000 on a $6,000 a year case? Why would they do that and how could they afford that? That's more tuition than the family would ever pay over the child's entire schooling.

[Portion removed.]

30 people like this
Posted by Elementary Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 7, 2015 at 10:42 am

I don't think Dauber "took it upon himself." The voters ELECTED him to do it. There's a board policy that requires him to do it. He does not serve at the pleasure of FFF and FFF does not run the district even if the last school board let them.

[Portion removed.] Time to pull the plug. These dollars should go in the classroom

25 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 7, 2015 at 12:28 pm

The OCR mess wasted a ridiculous amount of taxpayer dollars and staff time. Way too much secrecy and outright dishonesty. Time to clean this up.

31 people like this
Posted by Nixon mom
a resident of Nixon School
on Jun 7, 2015 at 2:18 pm

I'm not surprised to read that PAUSD is spending lots of money on special ed lawyers to fight with families. We had to hire a lawyer to deal with the district about our daughter's need for more support with her dyslexia. I could never understand why they would want to spend money on fighting over services that would have probably been less expensive and anyways they would have helped her learn to read instead of going into a lawyer's pocket. I have heard the same thing from many other families.

I don't know if it's this law firm that is the problem or the staff, but something needs to be fixed. My older friends say that it used to be different before the current special ed head was in.

19 people like this
Posted by Stop hurting trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2015 at 2:26 pm

@quid pro quo,
""the family's fees were also over $500,000. "
Wow! A family would invest $500,000 on a $6,000 a year case? Why would they do that and how could they afford that? '

The way these things go, usually the family will foot whatever they can up front, not ever thinking anything will go that far. Usually, even if the district handles things in a slimy, illegal way, families really cannot persist and just go away, that's why we should get different legal advice, that's neither the purpose nor ethical way a school district should operate. These cases are usually less about money than the work, stress, and horrible abuse the family must have had heaped on them (this is not a lawsuit where the family will recover damages). In my observation, FFF employs a bag of tricks intended to cause stress, i.e., stress out families. The result of these kinds of tactics is fewer lawsuits, but more expensive ones when you get people willing to pursue things on principal.

Usually that's when things go further. The bad guys in the district think they are getting away with it as the lawyers lead them down the primrose path. Then you get a family who stands o principal. Usually they don't imagine things will get that far, but if they are really sure they are in the right, they will fight things all the way and (although it's a lot of work to find representation and most firms won't take this kind of stuff on) sometimes they'll find a law firm to do the work and risk not getting paid in the end. The family may even have been risking having to pay the district's fees and going bankrupt. They may also not have had the choice -- if they prevailed at one level, and the district appealed it to the next (as seems to be the case here), the family may have had no choice or they would have had to reimburse the district if the family lost for being no shows.

Either way, families get nothing at all out of this except horrendous stress and the knowledge that they are doing the right thing. Often they are standing up for others they know will never stand up (I understand this perspective as that is how we are, do the right thing for ourselves and others). Our district benefits if families willing to stand up against injustice, malfeasance, abuse, and other problems are given the process to do so and can prevail, so maybe others don't have to go through it. Checks and balances are incredibly important to the functioning of public agencies.

Whatever we do here, we must remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

23 people like this
Posted by Stop hurting trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2015 at 2:29 pm

@Nixon Mom,
It's not just the current special ed head, its also head of student services. I hear very similar discouraging things from families about other things she's been involved in. You are right, I've heard the same, that our special ed used to be good. Unfortunately, McGee seems snowed by those people -- works with them every day -- and after a year shows no sign of any desire to investigate the problems parents have tried to bring to his attention. I feel really sad, I had really big hopes for him. I think he would do great things for us if we had cleaned house before he arrived, but he doesn't seem capable of it or interested.

31 people like this
Posted by Ebbie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2015 at 2:40 pm

Actually, the answer to "quid's" question it is much simpler, and far more nefarious than it appears, "Trust."

The answer is that the district kept suing the family, and they had no choice but to be bankrupted by legal fees to defend themselves.

In the Solana case, the district did not want to pay the $6100 in tuition, so the district took the case to trial rather than resolve it in the mediation process that is required. There were multiple settlement opportunities that the district refused, and instead, with FFF leading the charge, went to trial.

The district lost at trial.

Did it pay the family the $6100 for the tuition?

No. Waist deep in the big muddy, the big fool said to push on.

They took it to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where the judge reacted with incredulity that the district was appealing a judgment for $6100.

By that time the meter was click clacking away. The family again won at the Ninth Circuit.

Did FFF's client then admit its mistake and pay the tuition?

No. Neck deep in the big muddy, the big fool said to push on.

They were going take this to the SUPREME COURT! At public expense, FFF charged the taxpayers of Solana to prepare a Petition for Certiorari, which is their equivalent to PAUSD's "OCR Resolution," a strategy so stupid, so laughable, and so designed to fail, and to bring ignominy upon the leaders of the district. But it did line the pockets of the district.

At every point the family was being sued by the district, and the district was refusing to settle.

Oh, the family could have agreed that their child would be placed into the special day program and denied full inclusion. But that was not what she actually needed and the family stood its ground. She is functioning normally with no sign of a problem today, so I think they made the right decision. And of course, all those courts agreed with them, so that is a sign that they had a point.

Sound familiar, PAUSD special ed families?

In PAUSD, while FFF has been the district's lawyer, the district taken a very aggressive litigation posture, according to this article. Board member Dauber, who says that he has done his due diligence by reviewing all the materials now says that this law firm has taken that road rather than the road of working cooperatively with vulnerable families.

I have heard of many cases in which PAUSD has not acted in accordance with any notion of what the Ninth Circuit called its "economic right mind" but has fought hard against providing services that were far less expensive than the fees to conduct the fight. Do you know a story like that? Post it here.

15 people like this
Posted by Ebbie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Correction: "But it did line the pockets of the district" should be "But it did line the pockets of the district lawyers, FFF."

25 people like this
Posted by Elementary Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 7, 2015 at 4:40 pm

Yes I have a story. I wanted services for my disabled 3d grader. The service was eliminated unexpectedly and removed even though the goal was unmet. We disagreed -- it only cost $2500. We asked for an IEEE (evaluation) to show w neeced it. They treated us like criminals, barred me from the classroom, and filed an intent to go to due process against us. We decided to take her to private school instead of fight and we know MANY who did the same. We now think that was the intent -- to run the expensive services right out of the district. Mission accomplished I suppose. We have other children in the district and it has destroyed my happiness.

19 people like this
Posted by Lawyer Up
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 7, 2015 at 6:04 pm

The problem with lawsuits is that no one makes any real money except the lawyers. No one wins but the lawyers.

I had a very, very justified lawsuit against an insurance company that owed me a great deal of money at the time. I hired a lawyer and won, BUT the legal and court fees took over two-thirds of that money away. In the end, it was a pittance for the insurance company to pay, but I was still injured and bereft with very little compensation.

21 people like this
Posted by Lawyer Up
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 7, 2015 at 6:42 pm

It seems to be a dangerous sign that PAUSD is so well lawyered up.

How can any single family defend themselves against so much legal prowess? It would be a losing proposition from the start--only a billionaire could be an equal-- legally speaking-- against such legal power.

Why does McGee feel more lawyers are needed? Is he anticipating something-- and why?

21 people like this
Posted by Stop hurting trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2015 at 11:33 pm

If I would hazard a guess:

- As reported by many families, the district (through student services) practice of deliberately creating lengthy documents with what families say are mis- or outright false statements, omissions,or even false accusations, such as letters and memos and including in answer to simple questions, in order to overwhelm parents in special ed and 504 interactions, effectively denies process and is kind of abusive of already stressed families. Such things are extremely time consuming to counter and then of course the district claims the parents write/contact/email them too much. It is also a well-worn legal tactic to wear down an unsuspecting and usually vulnerable party, but completely inappropriate in a school system.

- District office practice of retaliating through inappropriate or even false representations to staff about families, and interfering with on-site communication and relationships to the detriment of students

- The district practice of avoiding answering records requests in relation to anything they don't want parents to know or do, even though they hired an expensive communications person with the main justification of filling said requests

- The district practice of using legal services for the benefit of employees whose actions may not be legal, ethical or may not represent the interests of students/families or the appropriate discharge of their duties, and may not be due them under their contracts with the district. Especially when the actions thwart student protections under the law.

- The district practice of making certain families with problems or vulnerable students feel unwelcome rather than trying to solve problems, because they don't want to bother solving problems and find getting rid of families easier

- The growing inattention to fairness and equity, between schools, between students. Special perks worked out for the favored, nastiness and retaliation, for the others

- Maybe they are starting to get wind of ways they completely misjudged certain circumstances and instead of reducing district liability, have actually shot it through the stratosphere all while costing us lots of money and hurting kids (i.e., illegal civil rights violations after they knew better). The Skelly years are not over, McGee has had a honeymoon, and seems poised to go the way of Skelly, which would be a crying shame.

- Systematically act in bad faith against parents such as Elementary Parent described above, because the reality is more parents either pay themselves or leave rather than fight. (The law actually requires districts not just to grudgingly provide for those who fight for their rights, it's supposed to proactively extend protections to anyone who would benefit.)

- Most of all -- retaliation against families who complained in OCR cases, EVEN IF THOSE FAMILIES' COMPLAINTS WERE NOT TAKEN BY THE OCR, or even if the complaints did not prevail -- is strictly forbidden and could easily result in future civil rights complaints since McGee seems absolutely unwilling to do any kind of quest to examine his own employees with an impartial view and restore trust. Such complaints are much more serious than the initial complaints, it's basically revenge by district employees against families who tried to get help when our district was failing students by not following the law (and its own procedures). Is it really in the best interests of the district to become good at hiding, covering up, and squashing dissent? (Gee, what's the political equivalent?)

We should go with the County Council. Not in-house while the district is still such a vipers pit, with such an unhealthy attitude toward families and the difficult parts of their work, unless perhaps the lawyer answered directly to the board and not the superintendent?


17 people like this
Posted by Autism awareness
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2015 at 11:16 am

My son is well known to Palo Alto and to PAUSD. He has severe autism, and before we finally were approved for him to go to Achieve Kids, we had YEARS of hell propagated by Carol Zepecki and ignored by the entire clutch of higher ups. We had to get letter after letter from pedi neurologists and psychiatrists that our son needed home hours that were being withheld from him while being given to the "squeaky wheels" or the well connected families with children on the very MILD end of the spectrum. It was only when we finally employed a special needs lawyer that Carol agreed to anything. The entirety of the special education department at Palo Alto has ignored bullying, poor teacher support and inadequate education of aides and principals, ignored behavioral problems which if addressed early with ABA therapy world have diminished significantly, and allowed aides to act in a baiting and hostile way, providing no feedback or higher level training to them. In many ways the "education" of our youngest students was more akin to babysitting than actually teaching anything.

I cannot tell you how wonderful many of our special ed teachers were, we go visit them, with our son to give then updates every year. I cannot emphasize how broken and pathological the special ed programs were when Carol was allowed to collect a paycheck but never actually help her teachers or her most affected kids. She was in rapt denial of the overwhelming problems of the distinct, and gave services to a few select students whose parents got lawyers involved.

Ask any parent of a now teenaged student with autism or ANY IEP'd student. They well tell you the same. We were told by SEVERAL special ed teachers that they were given a direct order to withhold service information from parents. This started when our son was in preschool at Cubberly and continued until we finally got the education he needed only by involving lawyers and several physicians, at great financial and emotional expense.

Thank goodness there have been somewhat more empathic and educated personnel working with our severely affected children now, but the entire system needs to stop the culture of antagonism against the parents of special needs students. Retaliation against parents who advocate for their children who have no voice of their own has been the norm rather than the exception.

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Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2015 at 12:19 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

People who are interested in this topic should look at the full agenda for the meeting (link above in Par. 3). Supt. McGee is proposing a major organizational restructuring, designed to improve district performance in the contentious areas that are referenced in a number of posts on this thread.

4 people like this
Posted by Stop hurting trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2015 at 12:46 pm

@Jerry Underdal,
Can you please provide a link? I dearly wish McGee had made some show of truth and reconciliation, since I hear disturbing stories from other parents still daily, it would give me some hope a reorg was beneficial rather than a shell game. Again, even a lot of new bandaging over a festering wound is not going to help like cleaning out the rot.

@Autism Awareness,
Since the district will never do this, for what it's worth, I'm sorry you wen through that. It was illegal under the child find provision of the ADA for the district to behave that way. You should never have had to go through that.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

@ Stop hurting trust

I have trouble when I try to insert a web link. The Weekly article links to the agenda in the 3rd paragraph, "proposal to hire general counsel."

2 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2015 at 4:42 pm

So will this in-house Counsel need a legal secretary and a research staff? Will he/she be needing a housing and car allowence? And let's not forget the pension. Will 72% of his/her salary be enough? Will the District need to find covert ways to suppliment his/her pension contribution?

Has anyone actually considered the costs for this program over a multi-year period?

And will this person's actual work be public? In other words--how will the public know that it is getting any value for its money?

2 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 8, 2015 at 7:17 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

Remember, most lawyers are prostitutes ( who do not even service you until you smile ) or at worst, just hired guns.
After all, it is TAXPAYER MONEY that is used sometimes against THE TAXPAYER!!

The lawyers do not care, they get paid no matter what happens and " running the meter " helps no one else but themselves.

Once everybody understands how the legal system works in the USofA, your next step is to cut the losses of money. Or are you too PROUD to cut your losses?

8 people like this
Posted by Stop hurting trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2015 at 10:32 pm

Jerry Underdal, thanks for the link.

Ouch, what I see is Brenda Carrillo getting more control. We would all have benefited if McGee had instead just started with a new Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire position, and then looked to see who was left.

All the reorganizing in the world is going to go for naught if McGee doesn't do a real inquiry into what went wrong before he came. He doesn't seem to realize his biggest tactical error in getting close to the most troublesome and slick, and letting them interpret and control his understanding of the district.

4 people like this
Posted by This is Winning?
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 10, 2015 at 3:30 am

Reviewing the recent case decisions by Administrative Law Judge shows Special Education cases the District brought against parents in weak positions, such as parents who do not speak English, parents who did not come to the hearing. Web Link
The question is why? Did the parents not have the money to fight the District after it filed litigation against them forcing them to pay lawyers, hire experts and miss work to go to court and defend themselves? Why didn't the District stop the cases? Was it an "easy win" for the District?

PAUSD upcoming cases involving the Special Education law firm can be found at:
Web Link
(type in "Palo Alto Unified" and click on "run" - the small box below). It doesn't show cases already heard by judge but pending judge's decision.

All in all not that many upcoming cases, but District should be more forthright and tell the public when it is filing cases against disabled children and inviting legal costs.

At the Board of Ed meeting district management talked of it's success legally because it settles cases it brings against the disabled. Settling court cases is not really a victory. It means the District filed litigation and ran up legal costs to settle it's case. Costs are costs. This is not an accomplishment. It is just less of a failure than losing in court.

4 people like this
Posted by Stop hurting trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2015 at 5:30 am

It doesnt include families who moved away to end the abuse. I know several.

Going to hearing will cost on the order of $6-10k minimum. The stress is horrible. The district, probably on legal advice, produces the most gawdawful lengthy pages and pages if outright false stuff on purpose. It is a testament to the mental health of district parents that no one has hauled off and [self censored].

This must stop. We reap what we sow. If we put energy into lies and destruction, it comes theough in our personnel and everyones education. We paymore and get less, and get more of what we dont intend. If we instead do our best for everyone, no matter what, and we try to efficiently and effectively, we get good at that.

1 person likes this
Posted by Former PAUSD parent
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Jun 12, 2015 at 1:42 pm

A number of us tried to persuade the board to ditch Lozano Smith in 2005 when the firm was sanctioned for lying, as pointed out in a comment above and on this link: Web Link

I can't believe the district is still using Lozano Smith, as well as another law firm whose partners came from Lozano Smith. Their ethics were questionable back in 2005 and they are questionable now. Why not start fresh with a more respectable firm?

4 people like this
Posted by Stop hurting trust
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 12, 2015 at 2:38 pm

Perhaps we should start a citizens commission made up mostly of parents, who review legal expenditures and reasons, and decide whether the expenditure was in the interests of the district or the personal interests of the employee (counter to the interests of the district), and docked said employee's pay.

Things would change real fast.

1 person likes this
Posted by Soberman
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2015 at 6:26 am

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