LBUSD Board Members Spar Over Legal Fees

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By Daniel Langhorne | LB Indy

The Laguna Beach Unified School District’s Board of Education approved an additional $220,000 for legal fees on Feb. 13, doubling down on a commitment to defend itself in lawsuits, including one filed by a school board member.

School board members Carol Normandin and Dee Perry.

The school board voted 4-1 to add $50,000 to its legal war chest for defending itself in a federal lawsuit brought by board member Dee Perry who claims she was discriminated against after sharing a letter that the school district deemed confidential. This action doubles the fund appropriated last August for Costa Mesa-based Rutan & Tucker, LLP to provide legal services to the school district.

“When we are sued, we actually have to defend ourselves,” school board member Carol Normandin said. “That’s our job.”

Board members separately approved on a 4-1 vote to approve up to $170,000 for the legal services of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo through June 2023. Mark Bresee, a partner with the same firm, recommended the board form a confidential matters subcommittee that includes all board members except Perry. In her lawsuit, Perry claims her fellow board members’ decision to establish the subcommittee violated the Brown Act.

The firm’s attorneys will bill between $260 and $305 per hour based on their seniority, according to the agreement.

Perry asked for the total paid to Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo. District administrators could not answer the question at last Thursday’s meeting.

“I find it hard to do oversight when I don’t know how it’s being spent,” she said. “I don’t think just approving the money or not approving it is an evaluation.”

She added that in her opinion the firm hasn’t served the district well and that the school board should conduct a formal evaluation of the contract.

“I have confidence in our leadership and I trust they are the ones who would decide that we want to change law firms,” board member Jan Vickers said.

Laguna Beach resident Sheri Morgan slammed the school board and Superintendent Jason Viloria for not doing more to mitigate the recent spike in legal fees.

“As a board, what are you doing to work the staff and Dr. Viloria to reduce these costs?” Morgan said. “How come all of the sudden you are running to an attorney and asking all of these questions?”

One avenue to reduce legal costs would be to direct district officials to conduct their own research from publicly available information before calling an attorney, Perry said. Normandin argued it would be foolish for district administrators to ask for a legal opinion of someone who isn’t a lawyer.

 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Laguna Beach school board members should have fixed the problem rather than pouring money into the pockets of lawyers.

    Never heard of something called a settlement, Ms. Normandin?

    “When we are sued, we actually have to defend ourselves,” school board member Carol Normandin said. “That’s our job.”

    No, actually, your job is to use taxpayer money to educate children.

  2. How would you settle this case? Pay Ms. Perry and her attorney’s I suppose. This begins and ends with Ms. Perry. It might make more sense to direct your ire at the party which filed the frivolous lawsuit in the first place.

  3. The more wrong the Board is on an issue, and the more serious it is when they get caught enabling abuses, the more likely they are to tell parents, teachers and students with grievances, “So, sue us!”

    Once a lawsuit is filed any accountability is deferred for years, and if anyone asks for answers the Board chants a rehearsed mantra “We are unable to discuss the issue because it is in litigation.”

    The Board can pay lawyers from any account and hide legal costs, and in addition we pay annual premiums for insurance to pay law firm fees for litigation, so lawsuit money is unlimited for Board, and they can bankrupt teachers or parents who dare to challenge abuses.

    It used to be “So recall us,” but when Vickers did that in the 1980’s that is exactly what the voters did. So Vickers indoctrinates new board members on how to protect incumbents by using lawyers to shield the Board from the public.

    Ironically, the Board recently has lost multiple lawsuits in which it has been represented by lawyers it rewards with new contracts. That’s because the lawyers enable ruthless retaliation, including the denial of rights and duties of elected Board members that forced a minority member to seek judicial oversight and intervention.

    Hiring lawyers who have served the Board politically but failed in court is yet another breach of the Board’s own bylaws, which require renewal of law firm contracts to take into account litigation success, as well as legal problem solving that prevents lawsuits and costly settlements.

    Instead of affirmative hands-on oversight the Board has abdicated its duty to base retention of legal representation on success and protection of education resources, and instead the Board seeks above all else to protect incumbents from accountability by pretending the staff is responsible.

    That is the import of the pathetic statement by Wolff that the Board “makes policy from 30,000 feet” and does not “get down in the weeds” dealing with “operational” matters. Even worse is the statement by Vickers’s quoted in this article that “I have confidence in our leadership and I trust they are the ones who would decide that we want to change law firms.”

    BRAVO, Indy, for some critical thinking and objectivity in journalism and reporting on School Board affairs.

    At the meeting of May 30, 2019, Board member Wolff led members Normandin and Vickers in a manic colloquy about how unfair the press is to the Board. “Throwing us under the bus” was the term used to lament press access by the Board’s critics.

    That bizarre and juvenile dialogue at the May 30 meeting made it clear the Board views “balanced” press coverage as telling the Board majority’s “side of the story” about “all that we do.” Clearly, suppression of reporting and coverage of the Board’s critics to deny access to free press is what the Board majority seeks.

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