News


Compliance manager proposed as school district's general counsel

School board to discuss contract for Komey Vishakan on Tuesday

An attorney and former prosecutor who has been overseeing legal compliance for Palo Alto Unified could become the school district's first-ever general counsel.

Staff are asking the school board to waive the two-meeting rule to approve an employment contract with Komey Vishakan, who was first hired on a part-time basis in 2016 to manage Public Records Requests and promoted to manager of policy and legal compliance last June. In that role, she continued to manage records requests and supported the district's compliance with a federal resolution agreement to correct violations of civil rights law Title IX, among other responsibilities.

The school board approved the general counsel role in September — the second time the board has voted to create the position — with high hopes for how an in-house attorney can help ensure compliance, reduce ballooning legal costs and build trust with the community. The district has struggled in recent years with compliance with Title IX, instructional minutes, budget errors, the California Public Records Act and other mishaps.

If approved, Vishakan will be tasked with providing proactive legal guidance and training on board governance, public meeting laws, the California Public Records Act, special education law and federal civil-rights law Title IX, among other topics. The general counsel will also monitor billing from outside law firms with the goal of cutting down on legal expenses, which have grown sharply in recent years.

Superintendent Don Austin said in September that the district believes the position "should be easily cost-neutral to savings."

Vishakan said it would be "inappropriate" to comment at this stage since the promotion is still a proposal.

Vishakan's proposed, yearlong contract includes an annual salary of $188,634. It also includes the same health, dental, vision and other fringe benefits available to other administrative employees; transportation expenses; and $50-per-day reimbursement to cover the cost of meals and miscellaneous expenses other than hotels, parking, travel and tolls for district-related business, among other provisions.

The general counsel will report directly to the board, with a dotted line to the superintendent. If approved, the board will evaluate Vishakan's performance at least once a year under the contract.

Vishakan is a licensed attorney who came to the district from Australia, where she served as the national litigation manager for the Australian Crime Commission, a national criminal intelligence agency, for close to two years, according to her resume. Prior to that, she worked as a court advocate and prosecutor with the Crown Prosecution Service, the primary public prosecuting agency for conducting criminal prosecutions in England and Wales; and as a federal prosecutor for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in Australia, among other jobs.

From 2013 to 2014, she was the vice president of outreach and membership for the Addison Elementary School PTA and the following year, served as the school's PTA co-president, according to her LinkedIn page.

She has also volunteered with Communities Overcoming Relationship Abuse in San Mateo and Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto and was briefly a paralegal intern at the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office in 2013.

Vishakan holds a bachelor of commerce, the equivalent of a business administration degree, according to her resume, from the University of Sydney, Australia; and a bachelor of laws, the equivalent of a doctor of jurisprudence, from the University of Western Sydney.

The school board will discuss the proposed contract at its Tuesday, Dec. 4 meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m.

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Comments

23 people like this
Posted by Need Clear Boundaries and True Family Advocate
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 1, 2018 at 3:28 pm

No offense, but how is someone who has mainly a prosecutorial background going to help rebuild trust?

This is all going to go terribly wrong unless the district comes to grips with whether they are bringing CYA in-house or they are creating a legal capability that will serve (rather than be adversarial to) families and protect civil rights of students. If they don't develop some boundaries and expectations, this has all the earmarks of becoming CYA personal attorney to coverup for administrators which got us into all the trouble before.

We still need an ombudsperson who has power and authority to make the district do the right thing and follow the laws, with the trust of the community, so people don't have to go back to the feds or sue. Creating such an impartial advocacy position is absolutely essential for equity in this district, since right now, only those who can afford lawyers and advocates can ensure their children's rights are protected. Every child, not just those whose families can afford it, should have equal access to the education they deserve.

The district's continuing failure to look at the culture of retaliation and potential for retaliation still, and the tendencies to circle the wagons rather than working openly, respectfully, and honestly with families as equals, ensures that the district will continue to see only a very small fraction of the problems that need solving until it is too late for most affected students. This also means district legal will get a distorted view of the problems, and will find it easier (just as staff do) to believe the behind-the-parents-and-students-backs gaslighting/gossip version of whatever problem needs resolving. Hence, there will be more children whose civil rights are violated and people going back to the OCR eventually.

If they care about every child, if the care about proactively finding and solving problems for children before they negatively effect a child's rights, development and education (as the law actually requires), they have to start caring about proactively solving problems and get out of the hunkering down and ignoring problems unless forced to deal with them mode. Every chance to solve longstanding problems is a chance to ensure they don't ever happen again.

Instead what this looks like is another attempt to think that it's possible to sweep all the old problems under the rug and start over with new employees (like that's ever worked before) but no major culture change and no willingness to solve still-outstanding problems for those who have suffered them, and this time things will magically work out.

There must be rules making it clear where this lawyer's responsibilities lie, or once again, she will end up serving as personal lawyer for district personnel CYA.


15 people like this
Posted by The Public Interest
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 1, 2018 at 4:52 pm

What experience does Ms. Vishakan have with managing outside law firms through Joint Power Authorities to keep costs down and to manage legal expenses? I thought that was one of the most desired attributes for the general counsel candidate.

What experience does she have with making an agency like PAUSD comply with the laws that apply to it? Given the district's recent record of non-compliance with state and federal law, such as with shortchanging students of their instructional minutes, not complying with Title IX and anti-discrimination laws, not preventing smoking in public buildings, how has she guided it toward greater compliance during her time with PAUSD?

What experience does she have with special education law? The board had said that was going to be prized experience they would look for in a general counsel candidate when voting to approve this position.

Is she a member of the California bar? Wouldn't that be required?

As for working in compliance, why has she, the manager of compliance, permitted passage of policies that eviscerate compliance, such as reducing employee accountability in board policies, which she could have opposed?

Why is the District's record so poor in complying with fulfilling public records requests for the Weekly, the Post and others, when this has been her main responsibility?

What experience does she have with actually doing what is right by the law and standing up to district non-compliance?


21 people like this
Posted by What's the frequency?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 2, 2018 at 6:30 am

I don't understand this post. Are you expecting people to answer you? Do you have answers in mind? Why not share them? What policies that "eviscerate" accountability are you talking about? Does a series of darkly uttered questions add up to see argument, or is it just a rhetorical device? Have I answered my own question?


6 people like this
Posted by Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 2, 2018 at 1:16 pm

Alum is a registered user.

Concerning. The candidate for the role has been publicly called out (by the Weekly) for being intentionally evasive/unresponsive regarding PRA requests. Others have had the same experiences too. The board has received complaints about this.

If the district wants the role to exist (which itself is not a bad thing), they need to look elsewhere for a more suitable candidate.


17 people like this
Posted by Questions
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 2, 2018 at 1:47 pm

>Vishakan holds a bachelor of commerce, the equivalent of a business administration degree, according to her resume, from the University of Sydney, Australia; and a bachelor of laws, the equivalent of a doctor of jurisprudence, from the University of Western Sydney.

>Vishakan is a licensed attorney who came to the district from Australia, where she served as the national litigation manager for the Australian Crime Commission, a national criminal intelligence agency, for close to two years, according to her resume. Prior to that, she worked as a court advocate and prosecutor with the Crown Prosecution Service, the primary public prosecuting agency for conducting criminal prosecutions in England and Wales; and as a federal prosecutor for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in Australia, among other jobs.

***The PAUSD couldn't find someone from an accredited US law school or even one who has passed the California Bar Examination?

***The candidate's background looks better suited for a role with the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office...once she passes the state bar exam.


14 people like this
Posted by Shounak Dharap
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 2, 2018 at 3:41 pm

Shounak Dharap is a registered user.

I'd like to clear up the questions I see asking whether Ms. Vishakan has passed the California State Bar. According to the State Bar, she has been an active, licensed attorney in California since 2013. Web Link


5 people like this
Posted by fellow journalist
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 3, 2018 at 7:18 am

On Tuesday night the Board should insist that Superintendent Austin reveal who put a full stop to filling Palo Alto newspapers' public records act requests and why.

It looks like Vishakan was moved to a different job so it is not fair to pin this on her.

Was it Superintendents McGee and Hendricks’ call?

It sure looks like they didn't want the public to know that "School district’s legal bills soar[ed]" under their watch or much else. Web Link

After that question is answered, the Board should ask Ms. Vishakan how she'd handle it if district leadership opted to ignore the public records laws again?

Does Vishikan see her role as representing everyone in the district and policing this for all of us?

or

Does she plan just to give advice and then be mum if staff decides to skirt this law again?


3 people like this
Posted by kids
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2018 at 8:51 am

kids is a registered user.

There are many parents who did not file complaints that have been helped.

I would like to see the secondary admin person supported and commended. She is holding 6-12th grade together and trying hard to follow the board policies and current protocols that are actually changing often. Put the money there and I bet many problems would go away. Also, if they leave this position as one person, no one can plan for the future and that is changing too. She should have a bevy of mentor teachers that could go out to classrooms to make sure curriculum and board policies are set up and help any teacher that needs it with materials or training in a nice way Also missing in the district is a resource library that parents and staff can go to for support. Probably that is too much money there! I am tired of hearing about nonresponsiveness and thinking of kids seeing adults standing silent while they suffer. I hope it is not true.


4 people like this
Posted by Alum
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Dec 3, 2018 at 10:32 am

Alum is a registered user.

@kids: Would you mind elaborating on what you mean by "She is holding 6-12th grade together"?

In her current role as Manager of Policy and Legal Compliance, Ms. Vishakan has been involved in the unresponsiveness and evasiveness of PRA requests by the district.

One such example highlighted in comments on an earlier article: A PRA request by the weekly last March was terribly handled—disciplinary notifications were requested, but the district cited objections by the employees in question to delay the release of the documents. Only a court injunction can prevent the release of such documents, and that had not been obtained.

Web Link (~pg 30)


4 people like this
Posted by Michelle de Blank
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 3, 2018 at 11:22 am

One big problem in the District is the lack or comprehensive dyslexia programs. 5-10% of children have dyslexia. By 3rd or 4th grade they are very behind and the remediation is much more difficult. Palo Alto could help children and save money by training teachers and special ed support in dyslexia techniques. It needs to be from k-12.

Palo Alto could be a real leader in this area and cut attorneys fees because less families would need compensatory education or private placement. We need to think preventively and not just be reactionary.


4 people like this
Posted by dyslexia
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2018 at 11:44 am

dyslexia is a registered user.

Michelle,

Hopefully this is happening. Earlier this fall, various District departments, including Special Ed and the school psychologist from Addison, met with parents to discuss dyslexia and the new program it plans to roll out to identify and use research-based methods to teach dyslexic students. Whether or not the new program is or will be successful I don't know, but I was happy to hear the district is finally taking this seriously!


13 people like this
Posted by Not Again
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 3, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Not Again is a registered user.

This proposed action is uncomfortable, because it so closely mirrors 2015 actions that harmed the District.

In 2015, the Board rushed through the promotion of Holly Wade to Assistant Superintendant and voted she must keep the same law firm. Wade's job was posted for only 1 week and only current employees could apply, ensuring she was the only applicant. This lead to costly legal fees, altered records, children endangered, a change of law firm, and Wade's eventual resignation.

Let's not do this again. No more rushed job promotions. No waiving 2 meeting rule. No posting only for current employees.

Post the job to competitive applicants, inside and outside the District.

As other poster's said, it is not all convincing an inside employee with such an extensive prosecutorial background is the best fit for improving relations with parents and the community. PTA and volunteer legal work are laudable, but do not show an ability to work with, and resolve, issues with suffering famillies. Addison in particular has a sad history of ignoring special needs children and initiating costly legal actions against disabled families. Many Board members have been PTA volunteers, and that experience di not prevent the District's problems of the past few years.

Further, while she has made some gains in getting information requests out, she has also been involved in attempts to stall or prevent disclosure, including the proposed policy and letters to parents that the district is not required to release required records. The tone of the letter was nearly a temper tantrum, save no time and resolved no problems.

The taxpayers need to know this position was filled by a complete, robust search and interview process open to competitive applicants.

I urge the Board not to waive the two meeting rule, to closely scrutinize this promotion, and to ensure a rigourous application process is followed. That's the only way taxpayers can feel confident the District at least attempted to find the best employee for the job, and that the most qualified person is filling it.


5 people like this
Posted by Cindy Goral
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 3, 2018 at 4:28 pm

Cindy Goral is a registered user.

I encourage everyone to come to Board meeting tomorrow night and speak or/and send email to the Board before Tuesday night. I'll be there. This job was approved by the board on Sept 25 and applications taken until October 12 - just 13 business days.

I spoke at Sept 5 board meeting stating the requirements and skills for the job description were not sufficient for the responsibilities described. I handed out job descriptions for general counsel for two other school districts which were well written. I said a poor job description often leads to a poor hire. No changes had been made when it was brought back to Board on Sept 25 for approval. I think I know why now. Not sure the insider would have qualified if changes had been made.

I want to know how many people interviewed for the job? It's an important one and should not be filled in haste


8 people like this
Posted by Former Gunn Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 3, 2018 at 8:56 pm

Former Gunn Parent is a registered user.

I submitted a Public Records request on October 9, 2018 regarding 3 PAUSD employees who were involved in the Title IX complaint we filed during the 2017-2018 school year.

I heard nothing from the district until 10/24 when Komey told me via email that I would have my information on 11/2/18. On 11/17 I emailed her again because I had heard nothing since 10/24. On 11/26 I got another email "apologizing" for the delay, promising I'd have what I had requested by 11/30 and giving me information on 1 of the 3 people I had requested public records information on.

On 11/30 I got a third email telling me that there was no other information regarding the 1 person who I already had info on and I'd have the information I requested about the other 2 employees on 12/5.

All I can say is that I'm not impressed, to me shows me how/why incompetent people stay in the district and just get passed from school to school (since no one seems to look at their files and follow through with anything) and I'm glad my youngest graduated in 2018 and we are done with PAUSD.


13 people like this
Posted by scotty
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 4, 2018 at 12:58 pm

Palo Alto School district will be lucky to have someone like Komey. I truly admire anyone who can put up with all this.


3 people like this
Posted by Rex
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 4, 2018 at 9:35 pm

For me, a very significant question about any lawyer PAUSD hires, is, who exactly does the lawyer work for? The district office, the school board, or students and families? They are three distinctly different groups, and there is no way those three groups, or even two of those groups, can be well served by one lawyer. Conflicts of interest abound at every possible turn. If this lawyer is to 'help' the district offices, I am concerned that there be more of the same CYA, cover-up, obfuscate, intimidate, stall, and of course costly litigation that the district tends to loose costing tax payers dearly.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 5, 2018 at 9:51 am

The General Counsel reports to the Board, with "dotted line" to the Superintendent. All lawyers who work for the district, as employees or vendors, have the board as their client, per Board Policy and Education Code.

An inside counsel doesn't make CYA or other concerns necessarily better or worse - it depends on the advice they give and whether it is followed. My sense is that this lawyer will not have a lot of policy sway - she is more a process/vendor manager, which frankly seems like what they need.


4 people like this
Posted by kids
a resident of another community
on Dec 6, 2018 at 11:34 am

kids is a registered user.

Former Gunn parent.



Here is an idea! Follow board policy and ed code. This is free and parents and students should not have to talk to 5 different people up a chain while their kid waits for weeks months years to have what was promised. No additional hires heeded, just adherence to policies. Win Win. They are easy to look and very clear.


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