......Beatty voiced concerns with Shinoff’s work for San Ysidro schools and a recent unsuccessful attempt to get a restraining order against an outspoken Poway Unified resident WITHOUT THE BOARD'S KNOWLEDGE" (emphasis added).
-- from North County Report by Ruarri Serpa, Voice of San Diego April 6, 2016
Maura Larkins' comment:
I applaud Kimberly Beatty's efforts to have the Poway Unified School Board take more responsibility for the district's actions in court.
But Ms. Beatty has her work cut out for her if she thinks she's going to be able to get the board to deal with issues that it has traditionally let lawyers deal with.
There's a reason that school lawyers take action without consulting the board. It's the way things are done in most districts. It helps incumbent board members avoid controversial issues. And Beatty might have the courage to deal with hot-button issues, but I think she'll find that most of her fellows on the board will want to leave things as they are.
Sure, the board might decide to discontinue its relationship with Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz law firm. But will the board want to change the way legal business is normally handled?
School board members regularly set up firewalls so they can claim they know nothing about what the lawyers are doing. If Beatty is talking about the Chris Garnier case, then the board can hardly claim ignorance of what was going on. Perhaps Dan Shinoff didn't consult with them ahead of time, and ask for an official decision about how to proceed, but the board must have heard about the case since it was covered in the San Diego Union-Tribune and on Channel 10 News.
If the board had a policy of having school lawyers consult with them before filing any request for a TRO, we would have heard board members howling about the breach of protocol at the very next board meeting. Instead, the board maintained silence through months of news stories. During that time, the board must have been approving payments to Stutz law firm.
Many people know that I've had my problems with school attorneys, but it has become clear to me that legal problems are not entirely the fault of the attorneys.
Attorneys are hired first and foremost to protect school officials, not to protect the public interest. Attorneys are expected to do what needs to be done so the district can present a calm, happy face to the world, and the incumbents can be reelected when it comes time to vote.
We seem to have unique ethics rules for lawyers.
For example, most people would agree that an elected official is supposed to act in the interest of the public that elected him and pays his salary. But this apparently does not apply to the elected City Attorney of San Diego. Remember when San Diego went into paroxysms of outrage when City Attorney Mike Aguirre claimed that his job was to act in the public's interest in regard to the big pension scandal? Even the California Bar Association said that public entity attorneys represent the officials, not the public. Of course, the Bar Association's goal is to advance the careers of attorneys. I do not believe that any court has actually ruled on this question.)
The system is set up to protect board members from responsibility for their lawyers' actions. This set-up ensures that board members have plausible deniability if the district ends up in court. Board members can plead ignorance. In addition, school attorneys fight tooth and nail to keep board members off the witness stand. So when you go to the voting booth in school board elections, you're going to have to choose between incombents who have absolutely nothing to say about the district's legal problems and challengers who are also ignorant of what goes on behind the scenes.
So how does a school district communicate with lawyers on a day-to-day basis? You might think that the superintendent steps in and takes responsibility for communications with the district's legal counsel. Nope, not the superintendent, at least not in my experience at Chula Vista Elementary School District or in many districts I've read about.
Who is the district's contact person for the lawyers? Usually, it's the Human Resources Director. And does the HR director tell the attorneys what to do? Heavens no. The attorneys instruct the HR director.
(I did see an exception to this rule in Grossmont Union High School District in around 2008 when board members Priscilla Schreiber and Larry Urdahl challenged the status quo and asked questions openly in board meetings about what was going on with the lawyers. At that time Superintendent Terry Ryan revealed that Shinoff had a verbal agreement with SDCOE rather than a written one.)
It is clear to me that many elected officials and superintendents intentionally abdicate responsibility.
Why? I think they like not having to think about pesky problems like lawsuits. I guess you'd call that laziness. And they don't want the voters to hold them responsible for what goes on in schools. They think that if they keep problems covered up, they will be reelected.
And they are almost always right about that.