School board member criticizes legal spending

Board approves third budget increase this year for law firms

Palo Alto Unified school board member Todd Collins slammed district staff this week for spending more than had been budgeted on legal services without securing board approval, which he said amounted to a "failure of financial control."

Staff asked the school board on Tuesday to approve a $435,000 increase for contracts with two law firms for this school year -- the third such request staff have made this year to address rising legal costs, mainly related to compliance with federal civil-rights law Title IX and special education. Last June, the board unanimously approved a $640,000 increase for legal services ($290,000 of which were one-time costs) and two months later, an additional $400,000.

The board ultimately approved the latest budget increase, with Collins dissenting.

"We have committed and used services above the authorized purchase order level," Collins said. "While I understand this is an extraordinary situation — we used more lawyers than I hope we ever use again. ... I think from a process point of view we fell down, and we should never, ever be in a situation where we are requesting budget allocations for items that if the answer for the board is 'no,' then we'll be in default on bills for services already rendered."

Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak responded that legal expenses are driven by need and "when we have an unforeseen need we need to seek legal advice on a timely basis."

Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks added that staff have "worked extremely hard to try to narrow the scope" of legal spending, including by absorbing some of the work through the Title IX office and special-education department.

The increases cover $175,000 for Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo, brought on in 2016 to assist primarily in special-education matters; $125,000 to Cozen O'Connor, a national firm the board brought in last year to investigate the district's handling of a student sexual assault reported at Palo Alto High School; and $135,000 for outside investigators.

In an interview, Collins said he doesn't believe district staff routinely spend beyond what the board has authorized; rather, it is "unique to law firms and maybe even especially unique to law firms this year."

The district spent just under $2 million on legal services this year. Staff attribute the sharp increase -- up from $997,000 spent last year and $386,000 the year before that -- to an increase in special-education litigation, a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and Title IX investigations.

The largest amount this year, about $955,500 through this March, went to Cozen O'Connor. What was originally a $50,000 budget last spring with the firm steadily grew in the ensuing months.

The district paid Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo $790,870 through April. An attorney from the firm also assisted the district with revisions to sexual-misconduct and discrimination policy required by the Office for Civil Rights resolution agreement.

Board members again expressed interest in hiring a general counsel for the district, a position that has been proposed numerous times in recent years by board members who hope it would help the district save on legal expenses. The district listed a job posting for the position in May; Hendricks said it was done at the direction of the board to see what the applicant pool is like. The general counsel would advise the board, superintendent and administration; attend all board meetings; evaluate cases and conduct legal trainings for staff, among other job responsibilities. Hendricks said the district has not yet interviewed any candidates.

Staff have not produced an estimate of the potential cost savings that would come from hiring a general counsel. Board President Ken Dauber suggested the district hire one temporarily for a year and then evaluate the effectiveness.

"We have been talking about general counsel for almost the entire time I've been on the board," he said. "It shouldn't be that difficult for us to take that step. ... We're spending money that we don't need to spend potentially."

On Tuesday, the board unanimously approved contracts with three firms -- Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo; Lozano Smith (which advises on open real property and personnel matters) and Dannis Woliver Kelley (which works on human resources, business, curriculum, facilities and other matters) -- for the 2018-19 school year.

The district estimates next year's total legal costs at about $1.2 million.


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73 people like this
Posted by incumbents out
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2018 at 6:20 am

PAUSD: Legal expenses

2015: $379,400
2016: $386,000
2017: $997,000
2018: $2,000,000
2019: $1,200,000 (est.)

Talk about out of control spending.

Don't get me started on the $5,000,000 and counting additional salary costs.

Millions and millions and millions of dollars wasted by this board.

12 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

The big papers are following the Alum Rock School District in Santa Clara County which is totally out of control and involved in a financial scam concerning the school bonds for construction. They are using a company located in SOCAL which is being sued by a number of districts so how did they end up embroiled with a proven non-performer and financial disaster? It is called money-laundering. Is school spending somehow controlled and directed by Sacramento? School systems now are the money pit in which scams are running throughout because of lack of transparency. So now we have the PA School District authorizing money pay-outs beyond the authorized amounts? Time for the legal staff to reign in before this gets more out-of-control. Looks like we are following the example of the UC System which is in the papers every week for lack of transparency - aka money laundering.

7 people like this
Posted by Peers Parent
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:03 am

Peers Parent is a registered user.

@resident - well that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? You say “time for the legal staff to reign in”. I don’t believe we have a legal staff. The board (well some of them) are asking to have someone on staff so we’re not constantly going to law firms and paying very high hourly costs. Given the rise in bills over the years, it does seem having someone on site could cut down some of those costs.

41 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:24 am

What a tremendous waste of money. Imagine the academic or class size reduction that could have occurred if even 1/2 of these amounts were redirected to student needs vs. legal needs. Are just a few investigations or lawsuits (or potential lawsuits) at the root cause of thsi?

47 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:42 am

What needs to be looked at is the increase in Legal spending from when Carol Zepecki left to today! You would be astonished! You need lawyers when the staff do not know what they are doing, and do not understand and follow the law. The school administrators have obviously decided it is easier to pay lawyers to sit in their offices than to read and learn about laws as we are paying them to do. Don't blame the school board although I would like to see them take the money and hire more aides in the classrooms and have more after school tutoring programs!

38 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:56 am

jh is a registered user.

The question that should also be asked is how many millions of dollars the school district has spent over the decades settling cases out of court?

44 people like this
Posted by bringbackcourtesycompetence
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:59 am

@John I agree, until we get staff that know what they are doing and less interesting in covering up their mistakes, more money is going to do more harm than good without external oversite.

36 people like this
Posted by Former Gunn Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm

Former Gunn Parent is a registered user.

While the costs are high, as the parent of a recent Gunn graduate who spent the entire last school year involved in a Title IX/UCP complaint I feel we need independent investigators and outside non-biased attorneys. Our case started in November and was not finished until April because the investigator spent months trying to track down the people involved who often refused to talk. In the end 2 adult staff and 2 students at Gunn were found to have violated my daughter's rights. I'm not sure that a district employee would have been as thorough in the investigation. Our feeling is that many (not all - we did have an amazing VP working with us at Gunn) district employees are very quick to sweep things under the rug and hope they just go away. The perpetrators often seem to have more protection (due to California Ed Code and district policies) than the victims. What needs to change is everything that is contributing to this increase in Title IX complaints in the first place.

33 people like this
Posted by Legal Costs
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 8, 2018 at 4:43 pm

@jh -The proposed 2018/19 budget shows NPS Tuition (special schools the district sends students to when it cannot educate them, due to reasons such as disability or psychological need)of $201,897, out of total district revenue of $251,088,933. This is less than 1% of the budget. That amount does not seem high, and 100% of it relates to directly educating the children in need.

NPS school tuition can be cheaper a neighborhood school, where a child may require a full time aide, learning and teaching specialists, full time behaviorists. A full time aide alone can exceed the cost of tuition of some NPS schools. Sometimes it is cheaper to send a child to a school designed to help the child's need.

Far greater is the amount of money PAUSD spends on legal fees against disabled children and their families. Office of Administrative Hearing for the State of California show there has not been a huge increase in the number of PAUSD legal cases related to Special Education of disabled students in the past 1-2 years or settlements. This means the District is spending a huge amount on lawyers who are not working efficiently, who don't work well with families, and who provide poor legal strategy and advice. This costs the District far more in the long run.

11 people like this
Posted by self-serving
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2018 at 6:43 pm

Part of these legal fees are for the lawyers who wrote a measure imposing term limits that we may see on this November's ballot.

That measure limits new board members to 2 terms.

But not current board members. Under the measure, they will be allowed to run for 2 terms beyond the terms they've already served if they want to.

If 3+ terms is OK for our current board members to serve, then PAUSD should just re-direct the $100k this measure will cost to salaries for teachers who will help students stuck in the achievement gap become better readers.

If 3+ terms is not OK, then board members need to have the lawyer re-write the measure so voters can impose a 2 term limit on them too.

Web Link

25 people like this
Posted by Get Smart
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:32 pm

“The question that should also be asked is how many millions of dollars the school district has spent over the decades settling cases out of court?“

While our district rarely gets sued, they would have spent less on legal fees if they had approached things with a spirit of complying with laws, serving the families of the district, and apologizing for and making wrongs right. The take of just how screwed up the culture was has still not been told, and it remains to be seen whether it will continue.

The CYA route is more expensive, and that’s why lawyers lead sucker districts like ours with bloated overpaid top heavy leadership into bad adversarial advice, they get paid more.

6 people like this
Posted by Board watcher
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:42 pm

Dauber asked for that at the Board meeting. The staff person said that it was not possible.

1 person likes this
Posted by yes and no
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2018 at 8:38 am

Board Watcher,

Ken Dauber asked staff if it's possible to include “current service” in the count.

The lawyers answer was "no" and “yes.”

“No” if it cut the 4 year term a person is currently serving short. For instance, a board member in his/her 4th term gets to complete his/her full term if voters approve a 2 term limit.

“Yes" for the count of total terms since the lawyers OKed board members asking voters to limit the number of future terms they can serve.

The board set their own limit at 2 terms beyond what they've served.

But Ken Dauber and the rest could just as easily have limited themselves to 2 terms total by putting on the ballot that current board members serving 1 term get one more term, those serving 2 or more terms get no more, and future board members get two.

19 people like this
Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 9, 2018 at 1:24 pm

Responding to the comments about term limits: "yes and no" doesn't have it quite right. My preference is exactly what this writer proposes: "current board members serving 1 term get one more term, those serving 2 or more terms get no more, and future board members get two."

The legal issue is with how terms served prior to the passage are counted. Unfortunately, the district's lawyer advised that counting terms that began before December 1, 2018 (the effective date of the ballot measure, if it passes) would not pass legal muster. Therefore the count of terms for current board members has to begin with their next term. I had hoped to count all of the service of current board members, as "yes and no" suggests. The question of cutting terms short before the end of their 4 years was never part of the proposal, and would clearly violate the will of the voters who cast their votes for current board members.

The upshot is that even if voters pass term limits, current board members can serve an additional 2 consecutive terms, beginning with the seats that are up for election this fall. However, if I'm re-elected I've already pledged to voluntarily abide by the term limits, and not to seek a third term.

2 people like this
Posted by it's simple
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2018 at 6:22 pm

Ken Dauber and "yes and no,"

It's simple. Your lawyers can give you the wording for something that goes like this:

Board members who are already serving a term are limited to 1 additional term.

Everyone else is limited to two.

That will limit everyone elected this Fall, including you, to 2 terms total.

The proposition that set term limits on our state Senators did it this way, one limit for those in office and a different limit for new Senators.

4 people like this
Posted by misleading headline
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 10, 2018 at 10:56 am

Should say "spending on legal"
"legal spending"

7 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 10, 2018 at 5:38 pm

The City of Palo Alto has a lawyer. So my question is why the school district appears to run on a separate track with no accountability or mutual resource use of the city lawyer. Maybe someone can explain how the school district remains separate from both the city and the county. To many loose ends here. When we are voting who or what are we voting for? Maybe the papers can explain how the school system appears to run on a separate rail.

9 people like this
Posted by Get Smart
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2018 at 12:52 am

You can read up on civics and school districts. They are set up with independence in order to give local rather than state control.

The school district having its own lawyer is actually really ominous and threatening, given how leadership has used legal for their own personal attacks on families and CYA. What we need is better checks and balances so that we use legal more appropriately, and that we serve families better instead of courting problems through boat-payment-inducing advice.

The district needs an ombudsman that is independent of district leadership, perhaps working for the city, who represents families. That will help reduce legal costs as it heads off problems by cutting through the CYA and insularity.

If you don’t like how things are structured, take a look at the Palo Alto City charter, and how it sets out the school district, and the board and superintendant. Since Palo Alto is a charter city, and since it establishes the district that way, we can make changes through charter amendment. The City and district are independant with independant budgets, but that is how they are related. If you want to change something, you do it by charter amendment to the City charter. Unlike an initiative or referendum, which can be adopted by City Council without an election, I believe those must be put to vote.

13 people like this
Posted by Get Smart
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2018 at 10:24 am

If you look into school districts and ombuds positions, you will see that the insularity of the school district structure is a national problem. Democracy and marketplaces all benefit from checks and balances. Some cities have tried to solve it by creating just such an independent ombudsposition. Others have school districts that fall under the authority of a mayor’s office, etc. We have the power to change anything we want. I think it would be good to create some tighter accountability to families somehow, since a board election every many years is not enough. The state even has a citizen commission that resets the governor pay every so often, which is why the Governor of the fifth largest economy in the world makes so much less than a superintendant of a small school district.

30 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Jun 11, 2018 at 2:36 pm

Pretty typical of "entrepreneurial" lawyers like Cozen O'Connor - they hook you with a low-ball budget, then find all sorts of "reasons" that the bill needs to get bigger and bigger, until you are orders of magnitude greater than what you asked for or what you really needed.

16 people like this
Posted by Get Smart
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 12, 2018 at 1:49 am

Exactly. And they get employees to see lawsuits around every corner where they aren't and thus get them to act in a way that incurs rather than prevents liability, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Employees do the stupidest things practically begging families to sue them and people just want to solve problems and get their kids' education and for things to go back to normal. So employees think that what they are doing is working (CYA), and engender even more liability (along with the harm it does to whatever poor family is in the way).

There ought to be an apology litmus test: any legal advice that involves never apologizing but instead lying and covering up should be shunned. Any legal advice that involves maintaining a complex and often negative narrative behind parents' and students' backs (known more colloquially as "backbiting") should be avoided. It engenders liability; few people sue, so the harm is never even counted until it is, and then it's too late to fix it. Just ask Kim Diorio.

38 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 13, 2018 at 2:58 am

There is definitely a lot of lying and inconsistent descriptions of SPED. It's kind of like Trump, make up whatever story you need for the moment since no one fact checks. It's really out of control and tragically doing serious harm to kids with people who are not able to defend themselves.

Maturity and goodwill are not the norm (or fiscal responsibility).

Apologies would go along way and possibly provide a path for administrators to learn and change. I've heard Max apologized to a family and tried to help but as soon as he left the new staff engaged lawyers instead of problem solve.

Until all the bad apples are gone we'll have more of the same - just search "School and Kids" right here and you'll see the exact same situations repeating themselves as far back as the archives go.

Hubris is crushing PAUSD.

1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 13, 2018 at 7:07 am

SPED - comments on Trump at this point in time have no applicability to the school board issues. What we have is a whole system that runs on it's own funding and has a huge union across the state which is calling the shots and pressuring how bond funds are executed. That is a Sacramento issue, a county issues, and then a city issue as the reputation of the school system is one of the selling points for this city. So deal with the city, county, and state people who are responsible for this separate rail system. And that is the current state reps in power. We don't need political intervention, we need qualified educators intervention who have some management training on law and finance. And we do not need parents who leap at legal intervention when sitting down with qualified problem solvers would be the best approach. We must be lacking qualified problem solvers in this city.

23 people like this
Posted by kids
a resident of another community
on Jun 14, 2018 at 8:12 am

kids is a registered user.

I think and ombudsman might be cheaper and be useful in solving conflicts sooner which would be great for kids, parents and staff. Raising kids and teaching kids is complicated with "normal" kids,( I am not sure where these kids exist, but I have heard they are out there) but kids with special needs or kids put in bad situations really need a team of people that would be free to communicate and resolve most problems in a well documented manner in weeks, not years. It just seems like a little reigning in problems with precise information and better communication might be money well spent. Not sure what other problems it might cause.

14 people like this
Posted by Agreement Costs
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 14, 2018 at 6:50 pm

Agreement Costs is a registered user.

@ Board Watcher -
"Dauber asked for that at the Board meeting. The staff person said that it was not possible."

Although that staff member's response doesn't make a lot of sense (why is it not possible?), there is not much point in looking decades back. Legal matters related to Special Education last about 2 years, sometimes 3.

More of a concern is that Special Education staff mislead the Board for years in saying Settlements were for a legal disputes.

The term "Settlement" does not necessarily indicate a legal fight. It only means a legal document called a Settlement Agreement is required to place a child in a school called an "NPA" or non-public agency. While children sent to "NPS" (Non Public Schools) can attend on a standard document called an IEP, NPA schools require a Settlement Agreement. It is unfair to blame Special Education parents or disabled children because of the type of school the child has to attend. Also, these schools are not necessarily a great expense, represent a very small portion of the PAUSD budget, and often are less expensive than providing services in a public school, such as when a child need a full time 1:1 aide to be in a public school.

Disabled families are required to hire an attorney to review the Agreements, since they are legal contracts. Families already suffering with handling extreme disabilities in children. In the past years, many of the families were single parents, on Medi Cal, spoke little English, and/or had multiple severely disabled children. You can see the pattern, among other places, reviewing the District's legal cases and Board Settlements in the past years.

What is distressing is when Special Education and it's attorney's present these Agreements to the Board for approval as if they, the District employees and lawyers, have won a legal fight. Sometimes that is the case, but not always. Sometimes the District suggests the school, and everyone agrees, especially if the child already failed in all public and NPS options. There are no other choices.

Often these parents were cooperative all along, but are presented as litigants who created legal disputes. These families have no power and no control over how they are presented to the Board. Families cannot attend the closed door sessions when the Board votes to bring litigation against disabled children nor when Settlement Agreements are approved. The Board only hears from employees and their attorneys. The Board does not talk to families or look at family documents that might show contrary evidence.

While Special Education will say families agreed with everything they wrote in the Agreements, they will not tell you District employees threatened the parents with legal action if they did not sign. Parents were likely told their children would not be allowed to attend school if they did not sign. Families are desperate and only want to get their kids to a safe place and avoid spending more money on legal fees, again which the District required them to do.

There is an extreme imbalance of power here. Special Education employees and attorneys are paid no matter what they do. Medi Cal families with 2 disabled children cannot spend money fighting every word or falsehood Special Education presents.

This is the opposite of a Free Public Education.

If you look at the number of Agreements the Board approved in the past school years, you can see the numbers do not always line up with the number of legal disputes.

Ultimately, Agreement documents are written and controlled by the school District and their attorneys.

Families of disabled make easy targets.

Why the District spends so much money to write somewhat routine Agreements, and why employees and their lawyers cause unneeded expense and suffering for theses disabled children they are supposed to help - that is a major question that needs to be addressed, and stopped.

4 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 21, 2018 at 2:04 am

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

For the record, like in previous times, the job post for general counsel that the PAUSD posted is bizarre and non-standard. No attorney ever has "letters of introduction" -- that is a certificated job listing thing, not a classified listing thing. Additionally, lawyers don't do "letters of introduction" -- do they mean "cover letter"? Just like in the past when the district posts legal jobs, they don't know what to ask for. For certain we cannot have confidence that they will know how to evaluate candidates.

For full disclosure, I have been applying for this job for 5 years. I even volunteered to do this job for free, out of desire to benefit the children of our school district (including my own children) as well as all taxpayers, residents, and other stakeholders locally. I would be thrilled if the board hires someone qualified, whether it is me or not me. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic about that. The Board seems to be in a hypnotic trance controlled by outside counsel who will do anything to protect their multi-million-dollar revenue stream, to the direct detriment of our district.

25 years in the practice of law has taught me that the Board will seek to hire someone they can control over someone who will steer our District on the right path. We can hope for better, but we almost certainly will be disappointed.

6 people like this
Posted by Note to Ms. Eisenberg
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 21, 2018 at 1:16 pm

If you want to be hired as the PAUSD general counsel reporting to the school board, probably not a good idea to write wild-eyed posts urging that they be tossed out en masse because they are incompetent / venal / in a hypnotic trance.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, your job posting advice seems very sensible.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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