Bertha Lopez is quite changeable in her support of outrageous spending on lawyers. She herself joined the unanimous Chula Vista Elementary Board time after time is authorizing hundreds of thousands of dollars to be paid to lawyers to cover up district wrongdoing.
The San Diego Union-Tribune is also all over the map regarding which lawyers it protects and which lawyers it exposes. It hasn't breathed a word about the unconstitutional injunction obtained by San Diego County Office of Education's favorite law firm.
Sweetwater legal fees exceed peer districts
The cost is more than $33 per student, compared to $11.65 elsewhere
CHULA VISTA — The Sweetwater Union High School district is paying almost three times as much per student for legal services as its peer districts, according to a survey by county education officials.
The district is paying about $1.4 million per year to its general counsel, Garcia Calderon Ruiz LLP of Los Angeles, and other firms, according to the review of the past two years of data.
With an enrollment of about 42,000, that amounts to more than $33 per student per year. The county compared Sweetwater to five peer districts, which collectively spent $11.65 per student per year.
The district with the next highest annual cost per student was Escondido Union High School District, at $22.13. The lowest-cost district was San Marcos Unified, at $5.51 per student per year.
The comparison was conducted at the request of acting Sweetwater Superintendent Ed Brand, who is reviewing a wide range of district operations after the removal in June of Jesus Gandara as top administrator.
“The County Office of Ed did the analysis comparing us with five other districts in the county and we turned out No. 1 in terms of total costs, so in terms of our comprehensive review, we want to be at the other end of the spectrum,” Brand said.
While Sweetwater’s law firm declined to comment on the specifics of the report, Spokesman Dave Garcia said, “GCR will provide the taxpayers and children of the district the best representation available and will use all tools available to maintain that standard of support.”
According to the county’s report, Sweetwater’s legal bills also were higher as a portion of operating budget. Over two years, Sweetwater paid 0.43 percent of its operating budget for legal fees, compared to 0.16 percent in the peer districts.
The lowest legal cost as a percentage of budget was, again, San Marcos — where Brand last worked as a superintendent. The district spent 0.07 percent on legal fees.
The report notes that the Sweetwater law firm’s $83,000 monthly legal retainer is “not common among other local school districts” and could be the cause of the higher bills.
The county’s largest district, San Diego Unified, has an in-house general counsel on salary, while Poway Unified and Grossmont Union High School District maintain no general counsel and simply contract with firms as needed. Both Chula Vista Elementary School District and Vista Unified maintain an outside firm as their general counsel and are paid on an hourly basis.
Sweetwater school board President John McCann said in a statement, “The district needs to reform and restructure the way it handles its legal services to decrease costs. I believe that the district can save up to a half a million dollars in legal fees by improving decision processes and implementing cost controls.”
Trustee Bertha Lopez, who has taken issue with the district’s legal services for months, said, “The audit just confirms what I had been thinking that GCR had been overcharging us and in these crucial budgetary times, we need to make cutbacks and GCR was one of the ones on my priority list.”
In addition to costs, Brand said he is reviewing the structure of legal fees — that is, the retainer setup and whether an attorney needs to be present at all board meetings. He’s also examining a contract clause that has been criticized, which allows the law firm leeway to hire outside consultants such as public-relations professionals at district cost.
Brand will make a recommendation on how to decrease the district’s legal costs at the Aug. 30 board meeting.
The county analysis follows a report completed by the district in June, before Gandara was fired. That study by district staff indicated the legal fees were not out of the ordinary.
In that analysis, San Francisco Unified and Sacramento City schools were cited as districts that spent a larger percentage of their operating budget on legal fees than Sweetwater did in 2009-2010.
When Brand took over, he determined those results could have been skewed by the districts selected and sought the independent review of districts he found more comparable.
The firm’s main lawyer for Sweetwater is Bonifacio Garcia, who was hired by Brand in the mid-1990s during Brand’s previous tenure as superintendent.
Trustees have already taken steps to change the way legal services are obtained in the district.
Under Gandara, all legal and investigative services for the district were obtained under the authority of the general counsel, as authorized by trustees. On July 20, trustees voted to authorize the superintendent, not general counsel, to obtain legal and investigative services for the 2011-2012 school year.