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.