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SCUSD Legal Costs Still Eating the Meeting

The battle over Santa Clara Unified’s legal expenses that began in December shows no signs of abating.

At the Dec. 13, 2012 board meeting Trustee Ina Bendis introduced two agenda items about district legal expenses, claiming they were out of line.

The first was an item-by-item audit of expenses – this documentation had to be prepared by the Superintendent and staff. This measure passed, and the hundreds of pages were part of last Thursday’s agenda packet.

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Bendis’ second proposal – firing the district’s current attorney and replacing him with a legal assistance hired by an ad-hoc sub-committee of the board – however, has gained no traction despite her repeated lobbying for it.

The district employs San Jose-based Hopkins & Carley, with much of the district’s work supervised by Attorney Richard Noack. H&K charges the district a discounted rate of $285 an hour, according to Superintendent Bobbie Plough. The firm’s normal rates range from $275 to $560 an hour.

“We could actually hire in this district two full time lawyers to work as our employees rather than paying hundreds of dollars per hour for every piece of paper is written,” said Bendis. “This board should seriously consider the cost benefit analysis of having house counsel that is able to handle many of our matters. It is outrageous the amount of money we’re spending in legal fees. There are many lawyers…looking for work. We’re looking at people who would be happy to work at $70,000 or $80,000 – that’s $60 an hour.”

“I think it’s better to go with experience, with people who have a track record,” replied Trustee Andy Ratermann. “It’s important we trust our staff…[which sees] legal issues on a daily basis. We on the board only see the tip of it.”

School districts’ legal costs are not easy to unravel. That’s because one of the main contributors is multi-year special education “settlements” to pay for private education for special education students who it’s been deemed can’t or aren’t being served by the public system. “There is no way to determine when the complaint started,” explained former SCUSD school psychologist Vickie Fairchild. “Oftentimes we do not know what led up …the settlement.”

“Considering the diversity of things that we do, I find it difficult imaging that we could bring someone in house that would save us a great deal of money,” observed Trustee Michele Ryan. “I don’t see a need to change anything. I’m also uncomfortable with an ad hoc committee. If we’re going to do anything, it has to be [as] a board.”

Bendis continued on the subject, however, saying that hiring specialized education attorneys for SCUSD business was “like going to a cardiologist to take our blood pressure. There are things that a generalist is completely competent to do if they are an expert generalist….I hope I’m not going to hear about $2,000 being spent to make board members the very best board members they can be [CBSA Masters of Governance course]…if members of the public are going to tell us that we need to get the very best specialist you can to cut your toenails.”

At this, there was an outbreak of audience snickering, precipitating Bendis’ retort that, “Every time I mention anything about medicine and law there’s snickering. I don’t see why there’s snickering.” Bendis has both M.D. and J.D. degrees, and is a member of the California Bar.

Trustee Jim Canova dismissed the discussion as “window dressing” for another agenda. “It’s my opinion that Dr. Bendis is unhappy with our current counsel. I believe she would be pleased if our current counsel wasn’t our counsel. If the new board has a majority that doesn’t want our current counsel, have an up or down vote.” In any case, Canova said, “I don’t think this is a thing we should be delving into until we have a new superintendent, because they’re going to have to live with this.”

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