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.
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.