The group of law firms the Palo Alto school district relies on to provide advice on everything from personnel issues to civil-rights complaints has started to shift and could continue to do so in the 2017-18 school year, with two new firms hired just this year and a proposal to seek new services in some areas next year.
The board will discuss the district's legal services contracts at its Tuesday meeting as part of an annual evaluation process that involves both the board and superintendent. Staff are proposing increasing next year's legal budget by $350,000 — for a total of $800,000 — to accommodate higher costs due to a recently approved resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, investigations into violations of federal anti-discrimination law Title IX and an increase in the number of special-education cases, a staff report states.
Last year, the district hired Pleasanton-based Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo to replace longtime and sometimes criticized firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost. The new firm, which the district selected after putting a request for proposals (RFP) in 2016, was brought on to assist primarily in special-education matters. Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost also represented the district in several investigations the Office for Civil Rights opened in Palo Alto in response to allegations of discrimination and bullying.
An Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo attorney, Eve Fichtner, has been helping the district this year with required sexual misconduct and discrimination policy revisions related to the Office for Civil Rights resolution agreement.
This spring, Palo Alto Unified also hired national firm Cozen O'Connor to comply with another stipulation of the resolution agreement: to conduct proper Title IX investigations into past allegations of sexual harassment, misconduct and violence at the district's two high schools. Cozen O'Connor is also now investigating district leadership's handling of student sexual-assault reports at Palo Alto High School.
This year, the district paid Cozen O'Connor $50,000; the district anticipates that will jump to $200,000 in the 2017-18 school year, according to the staff report.
The district also recently contracted with another firm, Sacramento-based Ellis Buehler Makus, to conduct two Title IX investigations. The district estimates the investigations will cost $40,000. Staff could later request to extend the firm's contract to cover any additional investigations, the report states.
The school board last discussed the district's legal contracts in May. At that meeting, trustees suggested issuing another request for proposals for legal services that have historically been provided by the firm Lozano Smith, which has advised the district on issues relating to personnel, the teacher's union and general governance.
Staff are planning to issue this month a RFP for legal services for human resources, business, curriculum and other areas and bring a recommendation to the board in late August, the staff report states. Staff are still, however, recommending that the board allocate $100,000 for Lozano Smith in the 2017-18 school year to tide the district over until they or another firm is awarded the contract, Superintendent Max McGee said.
In addition, staff are recommending the board renew contracts with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo for $400,000 and Dannis Woliver Kelley, which has worked on bond financing and construction matters, for $100,000.
The district does not plan to continue working with Dora Dome, an attorney who has consulted on bullying-policy development and trainings in past years, nor Amy Oppenheimer, who has conducted three Title IX investigations for the district, including into the arrest of Paly teacher Ronnie Farrell for inappropriately touching a student on campus last summer.
Since the 2013-14 school year, the district's legal expenses have gone down slightly -- from about $1.2 million that year to about $737,000 through April of this year, though in response to a question from the Weekly, Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak said the total for this year will likely end up at about $950,000.
McGee told the Weekly he does not plan to reopen a proposal he made in 2015 to hire general counsel because there hasn't been enough time to prepare an "in-depth cost-benefit analysis." After disagreement on the board at the time over who the in-house attorney would report to, McGee postponed hiring for the position.
In other business Tuesday, the board is set to vote on its 2017-18 budget, a districtwide equity plan that lays out how the district should work to close its achievement gap and an updated design for a significant remodel of the Addison Elementary School campus, among other items.
During closed session, the board will discuss an evaluation of the superintendent and the appointment of a high school principal. Gunn High School Principal Denise Herrmann's resignation, which she announced in late May, went into effect June 17.
Tuesday's meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave.
This week, the board is also convening for an all-day retreat on Wednesday, June 21, and for a policy workshop from 8-10 a.m. on Thursday, June 22. At the retreat, the board will discuss progress on district goals, board governance and other topics from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in open session and then go into closed session until 5 p.m. to evaluate the superintendent.
Absent from any of this week's agendas is a discussion of McGee's revised organizational chart, which has been postponed from two previous meetings. He said he is waiting to finalize a reorganization of the district office until hiring an assistant superintendent for strategic initiatives and operations, a new high-level district position McGee created in recent months. The district interviewed a third candidate on Monday and has a follow-up on Tuesday morning, McGee said.
Board President Terry Godfrey said the board plans to meet again before the end of the month and the organizational chart will "likely get reviewed" at that meeting.
View all of this week's meeting agendas here.