After years of debate over the merits of a general counsel and concern on the school board and in the community about legal compliance and outsized legal spending, the Palo Alto school board voted Tuesday to hire an in-house attorney.
The trustees approved moving forward with filling the position, which a previous board approved three years ago, in a 4-0 vote, with board member Terry Godfrey abstaining.
Godfrey, who voted for the position in 2015, argued the district's leadership has since improved and suggested instead waiting a year to see if an in-house attorney is still necessary. In a tight-budget year, she has said she would prefer to spend the money to support students directly.
The general counsel will report directly to the board, with a dotted line to the superintendent. The attorney will provide proactive legal guidance on board governance, public meeting laws, the California Public Records Act, special education law and federal civil-rights law Title IX, among other topics. He or she will also "review and monitor billing of outside law firms" with the goal of cutting down on legal expenses, which have grown sharply in recent years.
The attorney will be asked to report monthly billing totals from outside law firms on board agendas, provide legal training to staff and administrators and identify ways to reduce the district's significant backlog of Public Records Act requests, among other duties.
Godfrey made a failed amendment to require that the attorney have experience in special-education law, given three-quarters of the district's legal budget this year is in that area.
Other board members said the in-house attorney is supposed to be a generalist and didn't want to limit the hiring based on specific experience.
The board did decide to require the general counsel provide periodic recommendations on special education-related legal issues, as well as Title IX, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and investigations.
They also directed the board's policy review committee to take up a policy that states only the board president can communicate directly with district attorneys, since all board members would be able to speak with the general counsel.
The general counsel's estimated salary range is $171,000 to $188,000.
Superintendent Don Austin said the district believes the position "should be easily cost-neutral to savings."
Deputy Superintendent Karen Hendricks has also taken on a role "equivalent" to an ombudsperson, Austin said Tuesday, a role that was included three years ago in the general counsel position.
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 the 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 the general counsel position. Candidates Christopher Boyd and Kathy Jordan did not respond, but public comments they made at the board meeting are below.
Per board discussion last night that a significant portion of the cases requiring legal advice in our district pertain to special education, it would be a mistake to hire a general counsel who doesn't have at least some expertise in that area. I would have voted 'yes' for hiring the general counsel if the job description were amended to include expertise in that area. Since it was not, I would’ve voted 'no.'
Hiring a general counsel is a defensive measure when you need a much greater offensive of caring and understanding what is happening to special education students and many other students as well … getting a general counsel won't solve the problem. It really takes an institutional change …to get rid of the cause of all the litigation.
I would vote in favor of hiring an on-site general counsel. As a litigator, I know that proactive compliance is the best way to protect our students and our district's financial future. Hiring a general counsel who will advise the board, train district staff, review reporting procedures and reduce billing from outside law firms is crucial to building the culture of compliance that has been absent in the district for far too long.
(Jordan urged the board to approve the position.) Certainly I would hope this position would be able to help Palo Alto Unified with compliance rather than what some people fear, which would be to assist Palo Alto Unified with evading compliance. I'm optimistic that a general could help increase compliance, and compliance is cheaper, which could then allow Palo Alto Unfied to hopefully reduce its legal expenses and devote that money to our children's education.
In general, I support the position. ... However, I would have voted 'no' because ... the requirements and skills sections of the job description are inadequate. I would have asked that the staff revise the requirements and skills section to be more specific on what the necessary qualifications are to accomplish the responsibilities outlined for this position. This might include a minimum of 10 years experience and knowledge of pertinent federal, state and local laws and court decisions relating to K-12 education including but not limited to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and knowledge of the authority and responsibilities of the Board of Education.