The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has ruled that Palo Alto Unified School District board member Ken Dauber has no financial conflict of interest related to matters involving the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, for which he previously worked as a paid consultant.
Dauber received a letter from the FPPC Tuesday in response to a ruling he sought last month to put to rest years of questions about his relationship with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the agency's involvement in the Palo Alto school district.
The FPPC ruled that because the Office for Civil Rights has not been a source of income for Dauber since 2011 and he has no other financial interests related to OCR decisions that could come before the school board, the Political Reform Act does not restrict his participation in these decisions.
Income from a local, state or federal agency also does not fall under the Political Reform Act's definition of income, so could not create a conflict of interest for an elected official in California, FPPC General Counsel Hyla Wagner wrote in her letter to Dauber.
From 2009 to 2011, before his election in 2014 to the Board of Education, Dauber worked as a paid data consultant for the Department of Education, earning a total of $26,426, according to Dauber. His paid consulting work for the agency ended in 2011 and, he has told the Weekly, his district-related communications with the federal office ceased before he was elected last fall.
"Your facts describe income you have received in the past, but none within the 12 months prior to the (upcoming) decision" the school board may make regarding two pending OCR investigations into the school district, Wagner wrote. "None of the other requests for information or interactions with OCR that you described constitute a financial interest under the (Political Reform) Act that may create a conflict of interest.
"As such, the Act does not prohibit your participating in the Palo Alto Unified School District Board decisions described involving OCR."
Dauber said Tuesday that he hopes the FPPC ruling will allow him to move past concerns about his involvement with the agency. Over the past several years, anonymous posters on Palo Alto Online's Town Square forum have accused Dauber of assisting district parents in preparing complaints to the Office for Civil Rights and of using his relationships with top agency officials to urge investigations into the district, allegations that Dauber has strongly denied. Dauber wrote in a post on his website Wednesday that other members of the board have also raised this question "repeatedly."
Dauber also addressed, one by one, what he says are "errors of fact" in several stories and an editorial local newspaper the Daily Post has run in the last week accusing him of unethical behavior.
In its editorial, the Post accused Dauber of helping a family who needed special-education services to file an OCR complaint against the district. However, Dauber said his involvement with the family took place after the family filed its complaint.
Dauber and his wife, Stanford University School of Law professor Michele Dauber, helped the family obtain special-education services that were promised by the district in a resolution agreement following their complaint "but which the family alleged were never provided."
"The effort to obtain needed services occurred after the Resolution Agreement was entered into, and was unrelated to the filing of the complaint," Dauber wrote.
Dauber also addressed Daily Post allegations of his "tipping off" the Office for Civil Rights to sexual harassment at Palo Alto High School, which supposedly prompted the agency's current investigation.
The Post pointed to a May 29, 2013, email that Dauber sent to OCR one he released last month in his FPPC request suggesting that the agency offer "technical assistance" to the district in the wake of a series of stories about a "rape culture" at Paly published in student magazine Verde.
"I asked OCR to consider providing technical assistance to PAUSD in order to help the district understand its own obligation under Title IX to conduct an internal investigation," Dauber wrote on his blog Wednesday.
He wrote that this internal investigation was legally required to begin promptly and conclude within 60 days, but a month after the Verde stories came out, the district said it had still not opened an internal investigation and didn't see a reason to.
"The Post is blurring the distinction between what I requested, which is an internal Title IX investigation conducted by (then) Title IX Coordinator Charles Young, and an OCR investigation," Dauber wrote. "My letter is clear that I was talking about the former: 'It appears likely that school officials may have known or should have known of these facts, if not prior to the publication of the article, then certainly after it was published and widely disseminated. I think these facts should have triggered a Title IX investigation. However none was conducted and when the superintendent was asked about this, he stated that he did not see what the 'nexus' was between the unfortunate events reported in the student paper and the school.'"
The Post also wrote last Thursday that school district officials said they didn't know what prompted the OCR investigation at Paly. Dauber noted in his blog post that there was extensive local and national media attention around the "rape culture" stories and that the Office for Civil Rights directly informed the district that it opened the investigation as a result of the media coverage.
Dauber also pointed to an April 2014 Paly Campanile article in which then-Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the district itself had asked OCR for advice on how to proceed.
Dauber's wife also attended a school board meeting in mid-May and "directly informed the board and superintendent of the need to open a Title IX investigation," Dauber wrote. She also requested technical assistance at the same time as her husband, according to Dauber.
"However, regardless of how OCR found out or was 'tipped off' to the Verde story, the fact remains that whether to open an investigation was in the discretion of OCR as a law enforcement agency," Dauber wrote in his blog post. "Regardless of how the situation came to OCR's attention, if OCR determined that the situation merited an investigation then that is a decision made by the agency in carrying out its congressionally mandated duty to enforce the law."
Dauber's Aug. 13 letter to the FPPC requesting for formal written advice was prompted in part because OCR-related issues are likely to come before the board this fall. Specifically, Superintendent Max McGee asked during the last school year for board direction on potentially reaching resolutions with the Office for Civil Rights on its two open investigations in the district.
Dauber included with the letter several email exchanges he had in 2013 with OCR officials in Washington and San Francisco, written after Palo Alto Unified entered into a resolution agreement with the federal agency following the district's violation of the civil rights of a disabled middle school student through its mishandling of bullying complaints. He also detailed the history of his advocacy in the district, which has involved much outspoken criticism about the district's relationship with the Office for Civil Rights and handling of the agency's investigations.
Dauber also disclosed to the FPPC that several people who had made complaints about the district to OCR also gave money to his school board campaign in 2014 and helped with the distribution of campaign literature and fundraising.
Wagner wrote that campaign contributions "generally do not give rise to a conflict of interest" under the Political Reform Act, "except in narrow situations where an official is a member of an appointed board or commission and is also running for office and receiving campaign contributions."
Dauber also posted his letter to the FPPC and all communications with OCR on his website.
"What I think is really valuable about this," he said Tuesday, "is that I was completely transparent with the FPPC and really fully described my relationship with OCR and they addressed each and every one of those issues that was relevant and found that there were no conflicts."
"I'm happy that I can now move past this issue and be able to participate fully in these discussions on the school board because in order to be able to help the district move in the direction I think we need to move on cooperation and being proactive on civil rights, I need to be able to fully participate," Dauber said.
Dauber said he will continue to push for "positive change" around civil rights issues, including pursuing a district policy "of cooperation with OCR rather than resistance to federal civil rights law."