You have permission to edit this article.

Fairfax school board reapproves legal contract during raucous meeting

The Fairfax School Board revisited its controversial legal contract with Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost LLP in a special board meeting Wednesday night. A 3-2 majority again approved a contract with the educational law firm, and the majority not only blocked discussion of the issue but chastised the dissenting minority for asking questions.

The special board meeting was requested by board President Palmer Moland. More than 200 people showed up to the virtual meeting, about two dozen with signs calling on Moland and board members Alma Rios and Jose Luis Tapia to resign.

The sole open session item was the Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost contract. During its Jan. 14 meeting, the board approved the contract without completing a request for proposals or an interview with the firm, a violation of board bylaws.

At January’s meeting, Moland blocked discussion of the contract from dissenting board members Victoria Coronel and Virginia Lawson, though later in an interview with The Californian, Moland said the firm was hired “under an emergency situation.”

That emergency situation, he said, was a failed censure resolution brought forward in a December board meeting that claimed Moland harassed staff and abused his power as a board member, a claim he denies.

Wednesday’s agenda included an identical copy of the previous contract from Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost and cites bylaws that allow the board to fasttrack hiring legal counsel for “the unique demands of a particular issue or emergency situation so requires.”

The board agenda stated this contract was for the “purposes of assistance regarding the unique censure motion, and related issues, including but not limited to the 2020 investigation and PRA requests for the same.”

Currently, the Fairfax School District pays an annual retainer to Schools Legal Service to handle its legal issues. Moland read the agenda item and immediately asked for a motion. Coronel asked why the board was hiring another law firm.

“Any attorney we hire is for the board and they offer a wide variety of boardmanship classes and a lot of other things,” Moland responded. “There’s no firm that hires solely for one person. Right now we hire a law firm for whether we use them or not.”

“Hello, is this a discussion item or are we just going to vote?” Rios asked.

“Questions need to be asked, and questions need to be answered,” Coronel responded.

“Why didn’t you ask them before the meeting?” Rios asked.

“We have asked questions,” Coronel said. “We are obviously outvoted.”

“Why don’t you reach out to Mr. Palmer?” Rios said.

Moland asked for a motion while Coronel pleaded he specify what the emergency is. Rios offered a first motion, and Moland seconded it, which drew rebukes from the crowd. Superintendent Michael Coleman asked for order, the first of several times in the evening.

“He cannot do that, that is a direct conflict of interest,” Lawson said. “He cannot second a motion.”

Schools Legal Service general counsel Grant Herndon asked whether the motion “includes a determination by the board that unique demands of a particular issue or emergency situation requires.”

“I’ve been instructed how to handle this situation,” Moland said. “I’m following direction.”

Coronel pressed Moland on who was advising him, and whether it was Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost if not their current counsel.

“I will have the person follow up with you in email,” Moland said.

Coleman said that it would be a violation of attorney client privilege to disclose whether the board was already using the services of Fagen, Friedman & Fulcrost.

Coronel tried to call the board into closed session to learn more information. But Moland pressed Coronel for a vote.

“You are bullying us into voting without further information,” Coronel said.

As the board’s discussion wrapped up, there was more than a minute of silence. Coronel asked Coleman to remind board members not to text during the meeting. Coleman asked Moland to guide the meeting, and he didn’t respond right away. When Moland responded about two minutes later, he said that his internet connection was poor during the virtual meeting.

“We’re in closed session, correct?” Moland said.

“No, we’re still voting,” Coleman responded.

During public comment, parents, classified staff, teachers and one former board member all spoke in opposition to the board majority, urging them to reject the contract. It was a tense public comment session and Moland interrupted one speaker offering comment in Spanish. She assured him she would translate it.

At the 10-minute mark, Moland asked how much time was left in the public comment period. It was the first of a few instances when he would ask about the time remaining during the 20-minute period.

Maria Hernandez said she represented the voice of parents concerned about what is happening on the board. She said doesn’t see how hiring new attorneys benefits the needs of the community.

“I really encourage you to do the right thing and at the end of the day if you’re not willing to do the job that you signed up to do, I will ask for your resignation immediately,” she said.

Many speakers asked Moland to recuse himself from voting on the item.

“It seems that Mr. Moland is hell-bent on taking money from the students to further his own personal agenda,” said Dave Walker, the president of the Kern Fairfax Teachers Association.