Fairfax School Board Hires Another Law Firm After Grand Jury Questions Legal Services Spending | New
Just hours after a grand jury released a report calling the Fairfax school district board “dysfunctional” and questioning its spending on legal services, the board held a special meeting to hire another firm lawyers for the district.
Thursday night’s meeting was the second time in a week that the board has held a special meeting to address district legal services. On Saturday, May 22, the board ousted Schools Legal Service, the Kern County-based legal services consortium that has served the district for more than 40 years.
The board has split the familiar lines that have divided it since Palmer Moland took over as chairman in December. Administrators Jose Luis Tapia and Alma Rios joined Moland in ousting the schools’ legal department. On Thursday evening, the same trustees voted to bring in Olivarez, Madruga, Lemieux, O’Neil LLP as temporary legal counsel.
Both meetings were, as it has become for the district board of directors, chaotic affairs. They were marked by passionate dissent both on the stage from minority board members Victoria Coronel and Virginia Lawson, and a loyal audience of staff and community members voicing their support. opinion during public comments – and sometimes interrupt the meeting.
In a brief presentation, Lloyd Pilchen, a partner at Olivarez, Madruga, Lemieux, O’Neil, told the board on Thursday that the firm represents a dozen southern California school districts. He said the company has a presence in Kern County, including the town of Ridgecrest. Lawson asked if the company was aware of the district’s conflicts.
“I have personally worked with many clients who have gone through difficult times and who have had financial and ethical challenges,” said Pilchen. “That’s why you have legal counsel to help you get through these times.”
Although the board voted to immediately end its relationship with the Schools Legal Service at the May 22 meeting, it still has a contract with them through a multi-member joint powers agreement, explained. General Counsel Grant Herndon. Members must withdraw by December 31 to take effect on the following June 30.
“This means that, as it stands, it appears from the action of the board that the district will not be using our services,” Herndon wrote in an email to the Californian. “However, the Fairfax School District remains a member of the service and is required to meet the notice requirements and payment obligations required by the agreement between the participating school districts.”
A positive evaluation precedes termination
The board voted to end its relationship with the Schools Legal Service immediately after a positive assessment. Lawson and Coronel gave the 5 the highest possible score on all measures. Moland shared his comments for his 2.5 GPA, but Rios, who gave a 2, and Tapia, a 2.25, refused to reveal their scores, until Herndon told them it was required in as a public assessment process. They didn’t offer comment when pressed.
Moland said he didn’t feel like he received consistent advice on board meetings, hiring additional law firms, and board policy and by-laws.
He also said he was interested in learning more from the schools legal department about transportation, suicide prevention and bullying. Acting Superintendent Lora Brown replied that these are policies that the board or the administration itself can set.
Coronel asked why the board was voting to terminate the contract.
“Why are we ending legal schools? What is the reason ? Coronel asked. “We haven’t heard a reason. We’re not going to vote until we hear a valid reason why we’re going to end Schools Legal.”
“There was a report,” Moland said. “That’s all I can say.”
“Well, I’m a member of the board and I have no idea what the report is,” Coronel said. “It’s not OK. So why are we talking about it?”
Moland said the issue could not be taken up in open session.
She asked Moland again why they were hiring a new company at Thursday’s meeting. Moland dodged his questions.
“I’m asking questions, because I’m trying to find out why we’re doing all of this. Why is all this nonsense happening? Why are we stealing our children? Coronel said.
In his comments to the board, Herndon raised questions about how the school legal service would be evaluated. He was advised that he would be assessed at a special board meeting with less than two full days notice. The agency was not asked to submit anything to the board. The agenda item immediately after the assessment was “Motion to End School Legal Services”.
“It gives the impression, given the haste of the assessment, that the board may have already made up its mind,” he said.
Herndon and his colleagues were not invited to make a presentation, but they used their three minutes during public comments, asking Moland for permission to exceed their allotted time to defend their legal services. They read statements praising the agency of former board chairman Javier Moreno and recently retired superintendent Michael Coleman, who had been with the district for 20 years and 16 years, respectively.
Severe warnings from outside Fairfax
The May 22 decision was made following appeals from many members of the Fairfax community – and the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Jamie Henderson, a management consultant with the County Superintendent’s Office, said he was invited to attend this meeting at the request of Kern County Schools Superintendent Mary Barlow.
Henderson said that as the former superintendent of the Rosedale Union School District, he viewed the Schools Legal Department as an invaluable service to the day-to-day operations of a school district. Herndon was on his speed dial. He also reminded administrators that state law allows the county school board to monitor the financial health of school districts.
“If you have tax issues – like getting negative certification on your budget – you can be taken over by the state,” he said. “And if you are in the state, the board has no power. They bring in a state trustee and that person runs the district. We never want that to happen. “
Brown praised the Schools Legal Department for helping the district put in place a plan to smoothly reopen amid COVID this year. She cautioned the board of directors to think about the broader needs of the district when terminating a legal contract. She said administrators trust advice to make informed decisions that affect students and they need it fast.
“It’s not just the board of directors that works with the law firm. We need to be able to have access to a law firm at all times,” Brown said.
Thursday’s grand jury report also noted Fairfax’s spending on legal services. In one of his recommendations, he said the board should “review funds spent on legal services, justify the need for multiple law firms.”
Earlier this year, the district hired Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost as an outside lawyer. This is another decision that caught the council’s attention, both because of its expense and because the council’s minority and the community felt left in the dark as to why the company was hired.