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Fairfax school board hires another law firm after grand jury questions its spending on legal services

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Just hours after a grand jury released a report calling the board of the Fairfax School District "dysfunctional" and questioning its spending on legal services, the board held a special meeting to hire another law firm for the district. 

Thursday night's meeting was the second time in a week the board held a special meeting to address the district's 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 split down familiar lines that have divided it since Palmer Moland became president in December. Trustees Jose Luis Tapia and Alma Rios joined Moland in ousting Schools Legal Service. On Thursday night, the same trustees voted to bring on Olivarez, Madruga, Lemieux, O'Neil LLP as temporary legal counsel.

Both meetings were, as has become form for the district's board, chaotic affairs. They were marked by passionate dissent both on the dais from outvoted board members Victoria Coronel and Virginia Lawson, and a faithful audience of staff and community members who speak their mind during public comment — and sometimes interrupt the meeting. 

During a brief presentation, Lloyd Pilchen, a partner at Olivarez, Madruga, Lemieux, O'Neil, told the board Thursday that the firm represents a dozen school districts in Southern California. He said the firm has some presence in Kern County, including the city of Ridgecrest. Lawson asked if the firm knew about the district's conflicts.

"I've personally worked with many clients who have been through difficult times and who have had financial difficulties and ethics difficulties," Pilchen said. "That is why you have legal counsel to help you through those times."

Though the board took a vote purporting to immediately terminate its relationship with Schools Legal Service at the May 22 meeting, it still has a contract with them through a multimember Joint Powers Agreement, general counsel Grant Herndon explained. Members needs to withdraw by Dec. 31 to take effect the following June 30. 

"This means that, as it currently stands, it appears from the board’s action that the district will not be using our services," Herndon wrote in an email to The Californian. "However, Fairfax School District remains a member of the service and is obligated to observe the notice requirements and payment obligations required by the agreement among participating school districts."

Positive evaluation precedes termination

The board voted to terminate its relationship with Schools Legal Service immediately after a positive evaluation. Lawson and Coronel gave all 5s, the highest possible score for all metrics. Moland shared feedback for his 2.5 average, but Rios, who gave a 2, and Tapia, a 2.25, refused to reveal their scores, until Herndon told them that it was required as a public evaluation process. They didn't offer feedback when pressed.

Moland said he didn't feel like he got consistent advice about board meetings, hiring additional law firms and board policy and bylaws.

He also said he wanted to see more from Schools Legal Service about transportation, suicide prevention and bullying. Acting Superintendent Lora Brown countered that those are policies that the board or administration itself can set.

Coronel demanded to know why the board was voting to terminate the contract.

"Why are we terminating Schools Legal? What is the reason?" Coronel asked. "We have not heard a reason. We are not going to vote until we hear a valid reason of why we are going to terminate Schools Legal."

"There has been a report," Moland said. "That's all I can say."

"Well, I'm a board member and I have no idea what the report is," Coronel said. "That is not OK. So why is this being brought up?"

Moland said the matter couldn't be addressed in open session. 

She pressed Moland again about why they were hiring a new firm at Thursday's meeting. Moland dodged her questions.

"I'm asking questions, because I'm trying to find out why we're doing all this. Why is all this nonsense happening? Why are we stealing from our children?" Coronel said.

In his comments to the board, Herndon raised questions about the way Schools Legal Service would be evaluated. He was notified that it would be evaluated in a special board meeting with less than two full days of notice. The agency was not invited to submit anything to the board. The agenda item immediately after the evaluation was "Motion to Terminate School Legal Services."

"It gives the impression, given the hastiness of the evaluation, that maybe the board has made its mind up already," he said. 

Herndon and his colleagues were not asked to make a presentation, but they used their three minutes during public comment, asking Moland for permission to go over their allotted time to make the case for their legal services. They read statements extolling the agency from past board President Javier Moreno and recently retired Superintendent Michael Coleman, who had been with the district 20 years and 16 years, respectively.

Stern warnings from outside Fairfax

The May 22 decision was made over the pleas of many in the Fairfax community — and the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Jamie Henderson, a management consultant with the county superintendent's office, said he was asked to attend that meeting at the request of Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow.

Henderson said as the former superintendent of Rosedale Union School District, he considered Schools Legal Service an invaluable service for the day-to-day operations of a school district. Herndon was on his speed-dial. He also reminded trustees that state law allows the county Board of Education to monitor the fiscal health of school districts.

"If you run into fiscal problems — such as you get negatively certified on your budget — you can be taken over by the state," he said. "And if you're taken over by the state, the board has no power whatsoever. They bring in a state administrator and that person runs the district. We never want that to happen."

Brown gave Schools Legal Service special praise for helping the district to put together a smooth reopening plan in the midst of COVID this year. She cautioned the board to think about the district's broader needs when terminating a legal contract. She said administrators rely on advice to make sound decisions that affect students and they require it promptly.

"It's not just the board that works with the legal firm. We need to be able to have access to a legal firm any time," said Brown.

Thursday's grand jury report also flagged Fairfax's spending on legal services. In one of its recommendations, it stated that the board should "examine the funds spent on legal services, justify the need for multiple law firms."

Earlier this year the district hired Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost as outside counsel. This was another decision that brought scrutiny to the board, both because of its expense and because the board minority and community felt left in the dark about why the firm was being hired.