The Palo Alto school board opted Tuesday night to renew the district's contracts with its primary law firms, including one that provides special-education services and has been criticized by community members and one board member in particular for high legal bills and contributing to an "adversarial" relationship with families of children with special needs.
The board voted 4-1, with board member Ken Dauber voting no, to continue contracting with its four main law firms, but with three conditions recommended by Superintendent Max McGee that would establish a process for potentially searching for new firms in the future.
McGee recommended that the board's policy review committee draft a policy that commits the district to issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for legal and other contractual services every three years or sooner based on staff recommendation; that a new general counsel, whose hiring was also approved Tuesday night, review within the first 100 days on the job all of the district's legal services and recommend either keeping or terminating any of the four contracts, as well as timing for future RFPs; and that staff to be "judicious" with their use of attorney time, particularly using only one lawyer within the special-education firm, Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost.
Dauber, who brought the initial proposal to the board to issue an RFP with a critical eye for Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's performance, made two failed amendments Tuesday night -- first, to not move forward with that firm's contract, and second, to direct the new general counsel to issue an RFP for the district's special-education services within the first 100 days on the job. Neither amendment was seconded by any of his colleagues.
Dauber pointed out that legal fees from Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost have skyrocketed in recent years. 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. McGee and staff said Tuesday that this amount will likely be lower with the hiring of a general counsel, whose position McGee expects to be revenue neutral. He also said that expenses for both general and special-education services have declined from last year to this year.
Staff and other board members attributed Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's high bills to the district's need for extra support during a "confusing" and "strange" era dominated by numerous U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigations, many involving special-education cases.
"The experience that we went through when the large amount of OCR reports were filed had been unprecedented in the district for the people who had been here, and we all felt very confused in terms of the roads to travel," board Vice President Heidi Emberling said. "Our legal team was attempting to advise us as best they knew how to do. Having said that, they felt over and over again that the feeling in the community, the press, everything that was going on around this was just something they had never experienced in 20 years of doing this work."
Board member Camille Townsend similarly described this era as unprecedented and happening to school districts across the country. She criticized the Office for Civil Rights' investigative practices in Palo Alto and said that "legal counsel really helped direct us in a very difficult time."
Dauber responded that the federal agency's findings in a Terman Middle School case was one of only 15 disability harassment findings made out of 1,500 complaints during the first four years of President Barack Obama's administration.
"Only 1 percent of districts found themselves in the position that this district did of having reached a finding and the responsibility for that was not OCR's," Dauber said. "Ninety-nine percent of districts didn't find themselves there."
Townsend remained the sole board member opposed to the hiring of general counsel but did, however, support McGee's recommendation to conduct more routine RFPs.
Dauber stressed that the board has a responsibility to evaluate Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's advice, which he described as costing the district not only financially but in its relationships with families of children with special needs.
Parent Andrea Wolf, the mother of a child who received special-education services in Palo Alto Unified, told the board that she saw a connection between the rise in legal fees and an "adversarial" relationship between the district and families of children with special needs.
Dauber said, "There was a path forward in terms of cooperation and rapid resolution of those issues that wasn't taken, that could have been taken and I think would have left the district and, in particular, our students better off."
He expressed concern that the district could find itself in a similar position when the outcomes of two pending Office for Civil Rights investigations at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools are handed down, urging that the district proactively seek early resolution agreements rather than wait for findings.
Dauber requested that the topic be placed on a future board agenda, which the board agreed to do in response to McGee asking for more "clarity" around the board's position on how to handle the outstanding cases.
Though Tuesday was the last board meeting until August, McGee said he will continue to provide updates about the Office for Civil Rights' work with the district to the board and community via his "weekly" reports which are posted on the district's website.
In other business Tuesday, the board unanimously approved a spending plan for funds from Measure A, the newly approved parcel tax.
The district has dedicated $12.4 million to efforts continued from the last parcel tax such as class-size reduction and professional development, and an additional $2.3 million from the approved tax increase will support new efforts in health and wellness, academics and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math).
The STEAM bucket also includes the creation of a pilot Advanced Authentic Research program at the high school level this fall, with the goal to fully launch in the 2016-17 school year. McGee said he hopes about 30 students at each Paly and Gunn will sign up for the pilot program, which like Paly's Science Research Project will connect students with mentors in a field they're interested in for intensive independent research. McGee also intends the program to expand beyond science to include research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.
The board also approved three new district-level positions chief student-services officer, general counsel and a new nurse as well as the reclassification of existing staff members.
The board members' discussion mostly centered on how to best fill the district's soon-to-be-vacant communications coordinator position, with most board members stressing that the district is in need of both day-to-day communications and higher-level strategies around transparency.
McGee has said he will likely hire a part-time consultant to help with the day-to-day duties until the board can have a deeper discussion about the district's communication needs and vision.
The board also passed 3-2, with Emberling and Townsend dissenting, an amendment that requires the superintendent to return to the board for authorization before hiring a new full-time communications person.