News

Palo Alto school board to vote on law firm contracts, Measure A spending

Last board meeting of the year will also include discussion of new positions, district reorganization

The Palo Alto school board has a packed agenda for its last meeting of the 2014-15 year Tuesday with nearly 10 items up for a vote, including the renewal of contracts with the district's four main law firms and a spending plan for $15 million that the recently approved parcel tax will yield.

Despite board member Ken Dauber's proposal at the June 9 meeting that the district issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to find a new special-education firm, citing skyrocketing legal fees and current firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's ineffective handling of 11 investigations by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, Superintendent Max McGee is recommending that the board renew its contracts with all firms given the time constraint on approval and "based on positive feedback from District staff and the reasonableness of their fees," McGee wrote in an executive summary for Tuesday's meeting. He said staff also polled six neighboring school districts on the attorneys they use and fees they pay, finding Palo Alto's attorneys charge "reasonable" rates.

However, the superintendent is also recommending that the board's policy review committee develop a policy that would require the district to issue an RFP for legal and other services every three years. The board evaluates its law firms annually, but they have been typically been more cursory reviews.

The board will also consider Tuesday night hiring for the first time general counsel for the district, a person who in his or her first 100 days on the job would be tasked with reviewing all legal services, legal bills and existing contracts with attorneys and issuing a recommendation on whether or not to continue these contracts.

While the board split on June 9 on whether or not to renew its contracts -- board President Melissa Baten Caswell and member Camille Townsend both stood by staff's recommendation to renew, while Terry Godfrey said she was receptive to the idea of an RFP process and Heidi Emberling was absent – the majority supported the idea of general counsel.

McGee is also directing administrative staff to be "judicious" regarding the attorneys they work with within a particular firm. Specifically, regarding special education services, he has asked staff to use just one attorney within Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost; working with another individual now requires the superintendent's written approval.

Since 2012, the school district has paid Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost 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 has estimated $250,000 will be paid to Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost in the 2015-16 school year.

"District staff will be as conservative as is prudently possible in its use of attorney funds," a staff report reads.

In other business Tuesday, the board will vote on an expenditure plan for Measure A, the increased $758-per-parcel tax that voters passed last month and will officially begin on July 1.

The $14.7 million generated in the first year will continue to accomplish one of the parcel tax's original purposes — to keep class sizes down — and the new increase will provide the funding necessary to support additional investments in student health and wellness efforts, academic supports for struggling students and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) instruction. The parcel tax funding accounts for about 7 percent of the district's total revenue.

A $12.4 million from the previous tax, which voters approved in 2010, will cover items like class-size reductions, middle and high school electives, psychologists and counselors, new classified support staff and professional development. Top on the district's list of new expenditures is about $900,000 for health and wellness, which includes the hiring of a new licensed mental health therapist for each high school (positions the board already approved) and a "mindfulness coach" for teachers.

About $1 million is being set aside to support the district's efforts to close its achievement gap, including hiring an "equity administrator" to oversee such efforts, expanding summer school, providing "unconscious bias" training to staff and hiring an English language learner (ELL)/bilingual teacher on special assignment (TOSA).

The bulk of about $330,000 that would be devoted to STEAM efforts would support the superintendent's proposal that the district create a robust advanced research program for high schoolers, beginning by expanding Paly's successful Science Research Project to Gunn High. McGee is now recommending that the district start with a small pilot version in the fall and aim to implement a full program in the 2016-17 year.

About $127,000 in the STEAM bucket will also pay for new computer science curriculum to be offered at the middle school level in the 2016-17 school year.

The board will also vote Tuesday to approve its 2015-16 budget, discuss new positions and some reorganization of current positions and take action on financial and contract-related items for the new Paly athletic center. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.

The board is also holding a special Tuesday morning meeting to discuss a series of board policy changes, including on homework, Advanced Placement courses and special-education identification and services. The meeting will run from 10 a.m. to noon at district headquarters. Read the agenda here.

Comments

9 people like this
Posted by Look First
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 23, 2015 at 9:51 am

Current Attorney: Is the single attorney from Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost the Superintendent is requiring all staff should work with the same attorney who the community said was rude and adversarial at the previous Board of Education meeting? What will that resolve?

General Counsel: Missing from the General Counsel job description is an emphasis on maintaining positive relations, both with parties it deals with in District legal matters and the community in general. This new hire will need to lead the District away from a legal culture of adversary, attack, delay, Special Education game playing, "gotcha" and "we tricked you". The new hire needs to shift all District staff away from encouraging filing due process against disabled for small procedural matters to one that protects the disabled instead. The new hire needs to create a culture that acts respectfully, not just one that says it does. Legal disputes are inevitable. Respectful behavior is a choice. The new job description needs to stress that choice.


2 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2015 at 1:52 pm

> The new hire needs to shift all District staff away from encouraging filing
> due process against disabled for small procedural matters to one that
> protects the disabled instead.

Not certain that the PAUSD general counsel should become some sort of "advocate" for the "disabled"--rather than an advocate for the District (and effectively the property tax payers who fund the District).


12 people like this
Posted by elitist
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 23, 2015 at 2:02 pm

"The bulk of about $330,000 that would be devoted to STEAM efforts would support the superintendent's proposal that the district create a robust advanced research program for high schoolers..."
This does not seem the wisest or most equitable use of resources IMO


7 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2015 at 2:32 pm

@Bob,
"Not certain that the PAUSD general counsel should become some sort of "advocate" for the "disabled"--rather than an advocate for the District (and effectively the property tax payers who fund the District)."

Actually, under the "child find" provision of the ADA, districts have a duty to proactively extend accommodations because research shows this is ultimately cheaper.

The problem in your point is that you are equating "protecting the district" with protecting certain administrators' professional backsides, rather than the children whose education is the whole point of the district's existence. Failing to protect the children is ultimately the poorer use of tax payer money and increases district liability.

The adversarial stance is well known in other areas of law, such as corporate and medical liability, to result in fewer cases but overall greater liability and legal costs for the few cases that do get waged. Only a percentage of cases where the plaintiffs have a good case ever get waged in any arena. In a school district, the whole point of the district is to serve the children appropriately so things never get to that point.

If you are a parent looking for special ed legal help, there is a range of attorneys -- the most popular having the reputation of being less combative with an ability to retain a positive relationship with the district. Unfortunately, the district has not chosen such criteria for their own legal. As the first poster pointed out, there are choices, and those choices directly impact how well our legal services serve children's education and our taxpayers.


13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2015 at 2:33 pm

I knew it. The BoE feel they have a windfall of money and are rubbing their hands with glee at this extension and increase of the parcel tax.

They have already had a few "lucky" students go to Singapore, now how else can they spend our money?

And at the same time, they don't need to be in the slightest bit frugal and continue their wasteful spending habits with the general fund money since they have all this Measure A money to play with.

They sound like the kid in the candystore who has just found a $20 bill.


6 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2015 at 2:41 pm

@elitist,

I agree. It occurs to me that the best use of resources would be to hire someone with the wherewithal to coordinate parent volunteers in this district for a wide variety of activities, including assisting research and other STEM activities.

My own child has done self-motivated, independent, innovative publishable research, has published, yet would be shut out from such a program -- so I definitely agree with your perspective! Parent volunteers could more effectively serve that role, we just need a person able to facilitate parent volunteers, and probably a more open attitude toward parents in the district office (which would benefit our district in so many other ways). Having that overarching function would make a much broader array of opportunities available to our kids.

Having initiated a number of community efforts including a major disaster relief effort, I have seen over and over again how incredibly resource-rich and competent our community and parent volunteers are. Typically the one thing is short supply is coordinating leadership. A better use of resources would be more flexible coordinating leadership of parent volunteers in different arenas, including this one.


1 person likes this
Posted by Muddy
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 23, 2015 at 6:41 pm

The article and previous comments from Gunn's principal and Dr. Joshi certainly suggest the 2 new therapists will see students or oversee cases. But recent comments from District leaders subtly suggest that these therapists may not actually deal directly with students and will serve in more of an administrative role.

I hope the original plan (to see or oversee cases) is still in place. Cannot get a clear answer on this. I think it's important. Perhaps the Weekly can help clear up this question?


Like this comment
Posted by Elena Kadvany
education reporter of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Jun 25, 2015 at 9:57 am

Elena Kadvany is a registered user.

Muddy: From the job posting for this position, it sounds like these two hires will do some of both. Responsibilities include: "Support student mental health/welfare and wellness education in the high school setting through capacity building direct services, consultation and outreach. The therapist will provide mental health services including counseling, consultation, mental health evaluations, treatment and case management for individuals and families, and perform related duties as required. Provide a mental health perspective in collaboration with school sites to promote a positive school climate and develop a multi-tiered system of student intervention and support. Build and facilitate effective student support structures as a part of the student support teams.

Here's the job posting: Web Link


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