A majority of the Palo Alto school board indicated Tuesday that they support hiring a general counsel to provide in-house legal advice, with some debate over the structure and potential impact of the position.
A motion to waive the two-meeting rule, as staff recommended, to move forward with a vote on the position failed — though it wasn't until a community member walked a printed copy of the board's own bylaw to the dais that trustees realized that it hadn't passed. Waiving the rule requires a two-thirds vote of those present. Board members Melissa Baten Caswell and Terry Godfrey voted against waiving the rule, while President Ken Dauber, Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza and Todd Collins voted affirmatively.
The vote aligned with the ratio of support for the general counsel, which a previous board unanimously approved in 2015. The lawyer 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. Those who support of the position hope the lawyer would cut down on the district's ballooning spending on outside law firms and head off preventable legal issues.
Godfrey, who voted for the position in 2015, said Tuesday that the district no longer needs an in-house lawyer as it did then, when the district had a superintendent and associate superintendent "for whom the details were not the most important thing."
"Our circumstances have changed," she said. "We now have a superintendent and deputy superintendent whose detail orientation is unparalleled, honestly."
The district has also put significant resources toward legal compliance in recent years, Godfrey noted, including by hiring a full-time Title IX officer and a legal specialist to oversee Public Records Act requests. In a tight-budget year, she said she would prefer to spend the money to support students directly.
Baten Caswell said she would be "really, really uncomfortable" approving the position without a "framework for how we're going to measure what makes this effective." She made a failed motion that the superintendent bring back the item with details about potential goals for the general counsel, such as measurable cost savings or improved training and follow-through on compliance.
Collins argued that Palo Alto Unified -- as a large, service-oriented public agency in a highly regulated system -- "cries out" for an in-house lawyer who is devoted full time to the issues of the district. In response to Baten Caswell's concerns, he suggested having a lower-stakes attitude: try out having a general counsel and if it doesn't work, to go back to how things are now.
The board also decided that the general counsel would report to the Board of Education with a "dotted line" to the superintendent. A motion to do so, proposed by Baten Caswell, passed in a 4-0 vote, with Godfrey abstaining.
Several speakers also urged the board against waiving the two-meeting rule to provide transparency to the community on an important new position.
"It almost goes without saying, waiving the two-meeting rule in this place is 100 percent against the intent of that policy," said parent Stacey Ashlund, who is running for a seat on the school board in November. "Palo Alto Unified is not a tech startup or a for-profit corporation where hiring a general counsel is the norm."
She opposed the position itself, as did candidate Christopher Boyd. Two other school board candidates — attorney Shounak Dharap and parent Kathy Jordan — spoke in support of the position.
The general counsel will return for action at the board's next meeting on Sept. 25.
In other business Tuesday, the board enthusiastically promoted Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Karen Hendricks to deputy superintendent. In her new role, she will still run human resources but also oversee the Title IX office and related compliance matters. Hendricks, who served as interim superintendent last year, will now be the "designated No. 2 for the district," Superintendent Don Austin said.
Under a new three-year contract the board unanimously approved, Hendricks will now receive an annual base salary of $240,000.
How would the candidates vote?
As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the candidates who are running for Palo Alto Board of Education how they would vote -- and why -- on significant issues that the board takes action on before November.
This week, the Weekly asked the five non-incumbent candidates how they would vote on waiving the two-meeting rule on the general counsel proposal. Candidate Alex Scharf did not respond by the Weekly's deadline.
I would have voted 'no' to waiving the two-meeting rule on this item. I am supportive of the two-meeting rule as it is one of our district board policies (and) it promotes transparency and community involvement. The board policy states that a two-thirds vote is required to waive it, not three out of five as the board thought. Fortunately a well-informed community member pointed this out at last night's meeting.
No, (on waiving the two-meeting rule). I abhor the very real lack of clarity of issues and candor. PAUSD board members and Superintendent Don Austin circumvent vital public discussion. PAUSD board rules require decisions with a two-meeting rule to allow time for open discussion with the public and for reason and analysis.
I would have voted to waive the two-meeting rule. I strongly believe in the purpose of the two-meeting rule -- to ensure our board and community have time to study and discuss the agenda item at issue. However, approving the position of general counsel has been on the agenda numerous times over the past few years, and the board and community have already engaged in robust discussions regarding the necessity of the role. Now is the time to act, instead of once again putting off a critical decision on a position that is fundamental to protecting our students and our district's financial future.
Unless it's an emergency of some type, I'm not in favor of waiving the two-meeting rule. I would not have waived the two-meeting rule for the general counsel item. I believe the two-meeting rule provides transparency to the public into the school district's affairs and transparency is something the district has been lacking.