When the Palo Alto school board replaced controversial law firm Lozano Smith with another firm in 2017, board members expected their former attorneys would not be receiving any new work from the district.
So it came as a surprise to Vice President Todd Collins on Tuesday to learn that staff continued to consult with Lozano Smith attorneys this year, and not merely on wrapping up work already in progress but also on new legal matters.
The gap between the school board's understanding and what's been happening on the ground at the district office came out during the board's annual review of law firm contracts, when Superintendent Don Austin indicated that district staff had budgeted a $25,000 contract with Lozano Smith for next year to work on what he understood to be "new and future items."
Lozano Smith advised the district on issues relating to personnel, the teachers union and general governance until 2017, when the district put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) to replace the firm following criticisms of its services from board and community members. Lozano Smith submitted and then withdrew its proposal after the district asked about a federal judge's sanctioning of the Walnut Creek firm for misrepresenting facts in a special-education case, not wanting to “divide” the board during the selection process, according to Collins. The judge ordered all Lozano Smith attorneys to undergo ethics training, according to news reports.
The board selected one of its existing firms, Dannis Woliver Kelley, to take over the bulk of legal services, including human resources, business, construction, curriculum and other matters. Lozano Smith was to complete open matters but not take on any new ones. The board approved a $25,000 contract with Lozano Smith last June, which staff said at the time was for the firm to "finish up on open cases."
"I'm not sure on what basis we're giving them the work because they did not participate in the RFP process and were not selected," Collins said on Tuesday.
The district drastically reduced its budget with Lozano Smith in the 2017-18 school year, from about $233,000 the prior year to about $54,000. The district paid the firm $11,000 between July 2018 to March 2019.
In an interview on Wednesday, Austin clarified that the district has no ongoing matters with Lozano Smith but that Bond Program Manager Bob Golton and Deputy Superintendent Karen Hendricks have consulted the firm's attorneys this year on several matters, including sexual harassment trainings, leases and the bond.
However, he said, because "there's nothing of substance that would necessitate an ongoing contract" with the firm, Austin will now not be bringing forward a contract with Lozano Smith to the board's next meeting this Tuesday, June 18.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said Tuesday that while "the people that are on the ground doing their work should be working with legal counsel that they feel are the most competent and we need to respect that unless we have some information to the contrary," the board should be informed as to why a firm other than the one they selected was being consulted.
"It needs to be consistent," she said.
Contracts for next school year with Dannis Woliver Kelley for $250,000 and with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo, which has advised the district on Title IX and special education, for $550,000, will be on the board's June 18 consent agenda. Consent items are routinely approved without discussion.
After years of outsized spending on external law firms, peaking at over $2 million in the 2017-18 school year, legal expenses overall have started to go down with the hiring of an in-house general counsel in December. From July 2018 through March of this year, the district spent about $460,00 on outside legal services as General Counsel Komey Vishakan absorbed more of the district's legal work. Her annual salary is $188,634.
The district anticipates spending a total of $825,000 on outside law firms next year.