A law firm whose handling of special-education issues for the Palo Alto school district has been criticized for creating an adversarial relationship with families and contributing to high legal costs could be replaced by this summer.
Superintendent Max McGee is recommending that Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost, which has represented the district for close to 10 years, be replaced with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. The Pleasanton-based firm represents many Bay Area school districts (as well as those throughout the state) as well as Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) groups, county offices of education, community college districts and universities. The selection will be brought to the school board for approval at its May 10 meeting.
The firm was selected from five (including Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost) who responded to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for special-education services that the district issued in February. The district sent the request to 10 firms, according to a list provided by the district.
The other responding companies were Lozano Smith, which has worked for the district on issues relating to personnel, the teacher's union and general governance, among others; Walnut Creek-based Best Best and Krieger; and Los Gatos firm McArthur & Levin. McGee and a committee of district administrators -- Holly Wade, chief student services offer and former director of special education; Chiara Perry, current director of special education; Brenda Carrillo, student-services director; Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey and Communications Coordinator Jorge Quintana -- reviewed the responses, interviewed the firms and settled on Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, McGee told the Weekly.
Last June, the school board voted 4 to 1 to renew its contracts with its primary legal firms, including Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost. The sole opposing vote came from Ken Dauber, who initially brought a proposal to the board to issue a Request for Proposal for special-education legal services.
The firm's unsatisfactory performance, Dauber has said, has cost the district not only financially but also in its relationships with families of children with special needs. Since 2012, the school district paid the firm more than $900,000, according to monthly district reports on payments made to vendors, which were compiled last June. This is compared to about $830,000 paid to another primary firm, 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 estimated $250,000 would be paid to Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost in the 2015-16 school year, according to a staff report.
Parent Andrea Wolf, the mother of a child who received special-education services in Palo Alto Unified, told the board last June 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.
Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost also represented the district in several investigations the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened in Palo Alto in response to allegations of discrimination and bullying. The district also paid the law firm just under $50,000 in 2014 to research, develop and follow up on a resolution criticizing the federal agency.
Staff and other board members last June attributed Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's high bills to the district's need for extra support during a "confusing" and "strange" era dominated by numerous federal investigations.
Currently, separate federal sexual-harassment investigations are still open at each high school.
To prepare for the board's annual review of its law firms last June, Dauber looked at Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost's correspondence with the district over the last two years, which he said illustrated the firm's failure to keep the district in compliance with special-education requirements. The documents also heightened concerns he had about a lack of transparency around the Brown Act and Public Records Act requests, Dauber said.
Dauber also said previously he suggested a prime alternative to Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost would be the Santa Clara County Counsel, chief legal adviser to county agencies, noting that County Counsel charges much lower rates than private law firms.
However, County Counsel Orry Korb wrote in an email to the Weekly that his office did not to respond to the district's Request for Proposal.
"Our office does not have expertise in special education issues from the school district perspective, and counties and school districts can be in conflicting positions regarding responsibility for the costs of providing special education services to disabled school kids," he wrote.
While the new firm still has to be approved by the board, Dauber said he's "optimistic" that replacing Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost "will result in lower legal fees, better advice and a less adversarial relationship with special education families in the district."
McGee told the Weekly that he was impressed by the "depth of experience" Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo possesses with other school districts.
According to its RFP, the firm "work(s) closely with our clients to proactively control legal costs. Our goal is always to achieve the best result of the client at a minimum expense, and we pride ourselves on success in this area."
The district is currently working on a "seamless transition" from one firm to the next, McGee said, though the new firm must first be approved by the school board. It will be brought for discussion at the board's May 10 meeting.
In the meantime, Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost will finalize any still-open cases, McGee said. New cases will be opened with the Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo team.
The new firm will also represent the district in ongoing Office for Civil Rights investigations. Until the firm starts, McGee and Wade are "handling discussions" with the federal agency, the superintendent said.
McGee told the Weekly he has also decided against hiring a general counsel, a new position the board approved at his recommendation last June. At the time, he argued that an in-house attorney would save the district money and make the organization more efficient and effective in handling legal matters. Four months later, he decided to postpone hiring for the position after extended disagreement on the board over whom the new in-house attorney should directly report to: the board or the superintendent. While McGee said in October that he would still like to have a general counsel hired by July 1, 2016, he now says that the district is getting "plenty of support" from its current firms and that there are "more pressing priorities" facing the district.
The district is also awaiting results and recommendations from a review of its special-education department and services conducted by Thomas Hehir, a longtime special-education advocate and Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor. McGee said at Tuesday's board meeting that preliminary results will be shared with the board in June, and he hopes Hehir's recommendations can help inform changes as soon as the 2016-17 school year.