School board to vote on general counsel position, again

New superintendent recommends approving in-house attorney

More than three years after approving the new position of an in-house general counsel for the school district but making little to no progress on hiring one, the school board is set to vote anew on the position on Tuesday.

New Superintendent Don Austin is asking the board to waive its two-meeting rule and vote on the position again. Austin said that given the "amount of time that has passed" and some "changing conditions" since the board's 2015 action, board President Ken Dauber requested to bring the item back.

Austin's predecessor, Max McGee, proposed and then delayed the hiring of a general counsel after disagreement on the school board over the proper relationship between its members and an in-house attorney.

The general counsel would advise on legal compliance, draft board policy, respond to Public Records Act requests and interpret the impact of pending or new litigation, among other critical responsibilities.

The district now has a full-time Title IX officer and investigator, which didn't exist in 2015. Austin is not recommending that the general counsel serve as ombudsman for "informal but potentially serious complaints" or investigate discrimination complaints under the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP), as the previously approved position proposed.

Austin also is recommending that the general counsel reduce legal fees to external firms for like work, provide training and consultation for staff and coordinate contact with outside law firms.

Several board members have voiced support for hiring a general counsel in the hopes that it would cut down on increasing legal spending.

Austin has not worked with a general counsel in his previous school districts but said the position would provide value to the district.

"The way I understand it, the board wanted an attorney independent of the existing firms," he said. "I think there is value in that."

Austin said he reached out to the Orange County Department of Education, which oversees districts with longstanding in-house attorneys, and "got some really good feedback as to why it makes sense as far as the checks and balances and the daily contact perspective."

The district posted the general counsel position in May and has received applications, Austin said. The district has not formally interviewed any applicants since he arrived in July.

Austin also will ask the board tonight to approve a new position for Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Karen Hendricks. He is recommending she become deputy superintendent, with the added responsibility of overseeing Title IX and related compliance issues. Hendricks, who served as interim superintendent after McGee resigned last September, would continue to oversee human resources.

The change, Austin said, is meant to provide tighter oversight and "a more formalized communication loop" for Title IX compliance and requirements under a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Hendricks, who meets with Austin daily, would have daily contact with Title IX Compliance Officer Megan Farrell.

"It's just another layer of protection for everybody," Austin said.

Under a proposed contract that expires in June 2021, Hendricks' annual base salary would increase from $209,000 to $240,000.

The school board will meet in open session at 6:30 p.m. 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto. View the full agenda here.


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40 people like this
Posted by Trouble in the pipeline
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2018 at 10:15 am

If the attorney will serve as personal CYA for administrators, this is a bad idea. Every new super who has come in thinks they can start fresh and if they just ignore or worse, try to intimidate sufferers of past wrongs, they can move forward without making mistakes and everything under the rug will just go away. It’s like believing they can pile new potatoes in the bin without cleaning out the built up rot and all will be fine. It never works.

The last law firm was approved by Brenda Carrillo and Holly Wade, two of the worst reasons for why we had that divisive culture, and the people most motivated to CYA. That in a nutshell is where we went wrong while trying to reduce legal fees. Lawyers who come in should not be subjected to such internal politics or they could face disbarment. There are still nasty things under the rug that will create future scandals unless the district makes an earnest effort at truth and reconciliation. House council will not reduce district liability following the same strategies as the boat payment seekers,

I want the ombudsman function back. We need this more than house council. The law firm boat payments will go away if the district starts being honest and collaborative. Working in a school district means problems will crop up. Trying to solve them is part of the job, burying them and retaliating against those who have already suffered is illegal. It should be the job of in house council to try to promote a culture of the former, not dig deeper holes to bury the skeletons (they do come back to haunt you). should hire county council, I think the reason no one has is that they will see their job as representing the district and not CYA of certain employees who could never wipe the slate clean because their past behavior was so bad (following the oat payment legal firm advice).

It’s crucial for the board to ensure the lawyer is working for the public, the families, the interests if the district (which include solving not burying problems) not as personal CYA for individuals doing wrong things. Ground rules the public can enforce must be set. We must have some guarantee that this will be a change from the okd CYA ways, including that old problems still festering will be solved, taken responsibility for, and appropriate reconcilation made.

51 people like this
Posted by School Board
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 4, 2018 at 10:56 am

To truly change this decade+ CYA culture, we will need more “Kathy Jordan”s on our school board!

The past several years, Ms. Jordan is the only one brave enough to speak up publicly on these issues. She advocated for the two Paly sexual assault victims, even though they have no relation to her. Everyone else, including Kim Diorio, only points fingers to others. No one from the board or the administration ever apologized or took responsibility for what happened. It’s a shame!

I wish there were more courageous parents like Kathy Jordan running for board seats.

38 people like this
Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 4, 2018 at 11:09 am

Samuel L. is a registered user.

In-house counsel will only work to protect the district as their current lawyers do.

Had administrators followed common sense and done what was in the best interest of the students, none of this would be an issue. Diorio et al, couldn't make decisions that might upset the administration, at the peril of the students. Students were harmed, administrators were allowed to resign or even promoted (Paulson).

When the Oct 2016 incident became public, the administrators fumbled around and remained silent until the PR guy, Quintana, received guidance from their legal counsel on what to say to the public. Why hire people who can't make their own decisions. There are many emails from Diorio asking McGee or Quintana on how she should respond on a variety of topics.

I agree, we need Kathy Jordan on the board to at least shed light on these issues and bring them to the forefront so they can be addressed and fixed. Some board members have promised change but then they get elected and they cower back into the shadows. Jordan has shown she will not back down from people who disagree with her. She has shown that her number one priority is the students. Her boldness scares people. They'd rather have a nice quiet board who only speaks about how great PAUSD is. Newsflash: there're a lot of things that need to be fixed and need to be addressed publicly. It might be ugly, but the district will be better for it, in the end.

33 people like this
Posted by Green Acres parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 4, 2018 at 11:59 am

Green Acres parent is a registered user.

Every dollar spent on lawyers is a dollar less spent actually educating our kids. We're spending more on legal fees lately because administrators aren't following the law. To rein in the spending, we need to fix the CYA culture. Many of the worst offenders are gone, in large part because of Kathy Jordan's efforts (although the administration would never admit this). We need Kathy Jordan on the school board to finish the job.

17 people like this
Posted by Attorney Worries
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 4, 2018 at 1:34 pm

Attorney Worries is a registered user.

Ever notice whenever a vote on In House legal counsel comes up, it is held right before or after a holiday or after school is out for summer. That way, the public does not hear about it until the day of the vote, and lacks time to comment. We are once again discussing this right after a holiday.

The material PAUSD Administrators submitted was insufficient. How will the attorney fit in the organizational structure? Where are the reporting charts? Who is in charge?

A previous Palo Alto Online report said the In House counsel would report to Ms. Yolanda Conaway, Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Initiatives. Is that still the plan? If so, it is wrong. Why? This position controls all Special Education, Mental Health, and Student Services. Her department not only evaluates who gets services, they provide the services (so are incentivized to limit access to services). It also sues ("files due process") disaled students it is failing to help or allowing to be bullied or abused. This is the same department that requires "mediation", which is a way of forcing families into costly legal process. Even if the distrist says it is not legal, it is. Parents are required to have a lawyer. By definition, being required to pay a lawyer for a meeting held at PAUSD makes it a legal process against the child, that they know they will "win".)

This reporting structure, again if it is the plan, is exactly the same situation that brought us to the tragedies of the last few years. The Assistant Superintendant who controlled the sensitive services also hired, paid and controlled the lawyers.

PAUSD needs a Counsel who is independent of the client who pays them. Ultimately, PAUSD needs to get the client is not a PAUSD employee. The client is the taxpaying public. The taxpayer is the one who pays the bill. If the taxpayer is not happy with the legal counsel's advice, the legal counsel failed the client. The Superintendant and Board of Education who were supposed to be supervising the legal counsel's actions failed their community.

Intersting to note about the legal counsel job description posted on line. Not once does it mention the words "Child", "Children", or Student(s)." This is an early signal of whose side this attorney will be on, and it is not the children's.
Web Link

13 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 4, 2018 at 1:37 pm

Do I have this right?

Karen Hendricks, who has been with PAUSD all of a year, works the same hours but gets a new title and a 15% pay raise so she can oversee PAUSD's Title IX compliance team?

Explain why PAUSD's current Title IX focus -- a full-time coordinator, numerous investigators, dedicated support staff, new policies, mandatory staff trainings, and $1 million a year in legal fees --- isn't enough for a Palo Alto-size school district.

If it is that Hendricks isn't busy heading HR, cut back HR staff's hours to free up money so that the high schools can keep the support staff who the Board is planning on firing this month.


Be fair and give everyone who considers their job important a 15% raise too.

16 people like this
Posted by Raymond
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 4, 2018 at 10:02 pm

"It's just another layer of protection for everybody," Austin said.

Protection for who?

PAUSD has tried just about everything but transparency and truth when dealing with problems in this school district. Cases involving sexual assault and special ED bullying and blundering by PAUSD have cost the tax payers dearly over the years. There has been little accountability. I fail to see how spending a quarter of a million dollars for a lawyer will help this district.

To PAUSD administrators and board members, you are public institution established to deliver quality public education to local residents. Refusing FOA requests, stonewalling parents, non-disclosure agreements, sex offender on campus and costly preventable fiscal blunders are NOT a part of your job. Hiring a lawyer to facilitate that, which is what this looks like, does not inspire confidence.

Does the district have a PR person? Really? PR people generally provide cover for their employer. They say things so the boss doesn't have to so at a later date when the house of cards falls down, the boss can say 'I never said that!'. Brilliant, another quarter of a million dollars spent at Churchill rather than in a classroom.

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

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