By Elisa Moraes-Liu
The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) School Board voted in favor of moving forward with the hiring of a General Counsel during the Sept. 25 board meeting. The board previously approved the General Counsel posi- tion in 2015, but did not move forward with the hiring process due to a disagreement about the function and role of an in-house lawyer. “There was some division on the board about what this person would do and how this job would be set up,” PAUSD board member Todd Collins said. “The superintendent at the time, who was Dr. [Max] McGee, decided not to move forward with it and to continue using outside firms.”
Superintendent Don Austin revisited the topic of a General Counsel at the beginning of the school year. “When I arrived here I was made aware that there was still a desire to pro- ceed with hiring the General Counsel, but our current board members wanted to affirm that decision since so much time had passed, so we brought the topic back for another discussion just to make sure we were all on the same page,” Austin said.
The General Counsel will advise the district on a daily basis, reducing the usage of outside attorneys and law firms. “Our General Counsel will be doing some legal work that we currently pay very expensive outside attorneys to do,” School Board President Ken Dauber said. “We will be able to oversee the spending that law firms are doing.” The district will work closely with the lawyer to ensure compliance with state and national laws. “They will be able to give us daily advice on topics that come across our table each day,” Austin said. “They are going to work with agenda setting, including Brown Act compliance. They are going to work a lot with our Title IX and office of civil rights issues, including investigations and board policies.”
Even with the addition of a General Counsel, the district will continue to rely on outside law firms when dealing with certain cases. “If we have a case that involves, let’s say, a construction claim we are still going to use a specialist in the area of construction,” Austin said. The General Counsel, however, will still help to regulate and organize the usage of these out- side law firms. “We don’t have any lawyers on our staff that can help to manage the district’s external lawyers,” Dauber said. “We don’t have any way to exercise oversight on their decisions or to check their spending so we want to have more control over our external law firms because we think that will result in better services and lower costs.”
At the moment, the district does not have a concrete system in place for contacting external attorneys. “Right now we are doing it sporadically,” Austin said. “It’s all over the place and there’s not a system to who contacts attorneys.” The district currently uses three primary out- side law firms: Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo (AALRR), which specializes primar- ily on special-education matters; Lozano Smith (LS), which advises on open real property and personnel matters; and Dannis Woliver Kelley (DWK), which provides the bulk of legal ser- vices, including advice on curriculum, human resources, business and construction. Additionally, the district brought on Cozen O’Connor in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 to assist with the sexual assault investigations, but did not renew the contract for 2018-2019, citing the end of the internal investigation that required the firm.
According to school board agendas, from 2017 to 2018, the legal budget increased to $1,949,081 from $997,055 in the previous school year. PAUSD attributed the increase in attorney costs to an increase in the number of special education cases, the resolution agreement with OCR and the Title IX investigations. In the same year, the legal budget increased by $435,000, due to an increase in $175,000 for AALRR, $125,000 to Cozen O’Connor and $135,000 to other inves- tigators not listed by PAUSD. The legal budget for external firms is expected to decrease this year, lowering to $1,225,000. The costs for hiring LS will decrease by $25,000, AALRR costs will decrease by $900,000 and DWK costs by $300,000.
Dauber views the appointment of the General Counsel as a beneficial decision. “It’s a very posi- tive move for the district,” he said. “You have an organization that is like the school district that is very highly regulated and subject to a lot of laws including the state education laws. When we are spending 240 million a year on education, the idea that we have one internal attorney makes a lot of sense to me.”
Collins agrees with Dauber. “Most organizations of our size have a lawyer that works for their company,” he said. “We finally realized that it made of lot of sense given that we had a steady stream of a lot of legal activity and we spend between a million to a couple million a year on outside lawyers.”