Legal Fees and Budget on the School Board Agenda

At the next school board meeting on Tuesday, June 9, the board will consider two important items: the 2015-16 budget, and evaluation of the district's law firms (the Weekly has an article on the law firm review, with background information and some comments from me). As I pointed out in my last post, one firm, Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost (FFF), has seen a very substantial increase in fees. FFF handles special education and Office for Civil Rights (OCR) related issues for the district. In 2009, FFF billed the district just under $30,000. Since 2012, PAUSD has paid FFF over $900,000, and the estimate for next year is $250,000. During the election I promised to look into these expenditures and work to reduce them.

magnifying.jpgConsistent with this pledge and to prepare for the board review, in late March I requested the last two years of FFF's correspondence with the district. I ultimately received access to those materials a few weeks ago. Based on my review of that information, as well as what is publicly known, I believe that we should look for alternatives to FFF that will more effectively:

  • control legal costs
  • provide effective advice that is focused on achieving concrete results for the district
  • meet the needs of special education students without unnecessary conflict,
  • help to promote transparency in policy formation and compliance with the Brown Act and the Public Records Act

The Board has an obligation to the taxpayers and to the special education community to utilize the bidding process to ensure that we are getting the best representation for our money.

One reason for concern is that in 2014, the California Department of Education conducted an investigation into PAUSD's compliance with special education laws and rules and found significant compliance issues -- despite the substantial payments to FFF for legal advice in this area. This finding by the state followed on two earlier investigations in 2011-12 by the federal Office for Civil Rights that also uncovered noncompliance in addressing the needs of special education students.

The problem PAUSD is experiencing with its high legal fees is not unique to the district. In fact, a Santa Clara County grand jury report from 2008-09, entitled "Who Really Benefits from Education Dollars?" found that school districts often overpay private law firms, and recommends greater attention to controlling costs and considering using the County Counsel's office for special education legal services -- both recommendations we should pay careful attention to.

Also on Tuesday night, Dr. McGee will be proposing to hire a general counsel for the school district. I support this request, as it has the potential to it reduce the use of outside lawyers. Equally importantly, it will provide for effective supervision and accountability when the district does use outside counsel.

The discussion on Tuesday will be followed at the next board meeting by a vote on whether the board should give our law firms a satisfactory evaluation and extend their contracts for another year, or instead put out a request for proposals for one or more of the firms. I will propose that the board not give FFF a satisfactory evaluation and a contract extension, and instead issue an RFP to look at alternatives for the district's special education legal work. I will also propose that if the district does hire a general counsel, he or she should have the freedom to recommend outside firms.

Budget

The board will consider a proposed budget of slightly less than $206 million for 2015-16, an increase of $16 million over the 2014-15 expenditure of $190 million. That increase reflects a one-time payment from the state of $7.2 million for Common Core implementation, and increased revenue from property and parcel taxes. The proposed budget increases funding for health services by $900,000, including increased mental health services (and $50,000 for services directed specifically to Asian Americans), $300,000 for expanding summer school, and transportation support for elementary field trips -- all changes I have supported. The largest increase in the regular operating budget is for certificated (teacher) salaries, which will increase by $5.1 million, mostly as a result of contract terms the board negotiated and will ratify on Tuesday. That contract requires all secondary teachers to use the district's student information system, Schoology, to post homework assignments and due dates, another change I have long supported.

As PAUSD adopts its first budget of over $200 million, it is clear that the board's budgeting process needs reform. Currently, there is no real process for providing board guidance and input into the budgeting process, except for offering amendments at the very end. I believe the board needs to play a much earlier and more robust role in the budgeting process in order to ensure that the budget reflects board and community priorities. Making changes in this area will be a priority of mine for next year. I'll propose that a board study session on this topic, which was to have been held in June of this year, be held in August or early September, in time to affect next year's process.

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Contact: kenneth.dauber@gmail.com or 650-906-4340

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