Lawsuit and Countersuit: SLV CARE Vs SLVUSD - (SLVTA Vs SLV CARE?)
Reproduced with permission from the Web site SLV School District Perspectives
by Laura Dolson
The closure of Redwood Elementary School has led not only to the attempt to recall most of the school board, but to pending litigation as well. This action is being undertaken by a group of citizens calling themselves SLV CARE. At the 9/16 school board meeting, the SLV Teachers' Association announced that they are considering a "countersuit" to obtain reimbursement of District funds. Since countersuits are usually only successful when the grounds for the original lawsuit are discovered by the legal system to be unfounded, I thought it would be profitable to the community to conduct an investigation of this action.
SLV CARE is an acronym for San Lorenzo Valley Community Advocates for Responsible Education. The group originally formed in March around the time of the final meetings of the school closure committee, and was primarily composed of parents of students who then attended Redwood Elementary School. At the 3/25/03 Special School Board meeting (after the committee had made its recommendations, but before the Board voted), they presented a paper outlining why they felt that Redwood should remain open. After the Board voted to close Quail Hollow and Redwood Elementary Schools, part of the group renamed itself SLV United and began to focus on recalling the four school board members who had voted to close Redwood. Another part of the group began working on bringing legal action against the SLV School District.
This legal action first appeared on the agenda of a school board meeting (closed session conference with legal counsel) on July 29, 2003, and has appeared on every agenda since then.
What follows is a brief synopsis of the complaint and demands. I have spent a long time researching the government codes and having it all explained to me. I figure most people really don't care about the legal details - however, if anyone has specific questions, I'd be happy to answer them in a Q&A format - just email me the question, and I'll put them up here on the site with the answer as I understand it.
SLV CARE organizes its demands into five categories:
1. Bond money disbursement - SLV CARE asks the court for orders directing the District to comply with statutes regulating the handling of bond money from Measure S. This includes what the funds may be used for, having an oversight committee, and not spending money pending state matching funds.
From my research into this, I've learned that the District has consulted with legal counsel on all of its decisions regarding bond funds and is operating within regulations. Although the District is not required to have a citizen's Bond Oversight Committee, it does have such a committee, which was formed last fall. As far as the state matching funds go, the renovation plan is set up in phases with the highest priority projects first. That way, if the matching funds don't come through, it won't be a big problem.
The only thing that wasn't clear to me in my research was a section about the District not being allowed to pay administrative salaries out of bond money. There is a regulation against this, but half of Don Fox's salary was being paid out of bond interest, and now Brian Loehr's whole salary is. It turns out that with a bond of any size, it is common practice to pay someone to oversee the carrying out of the use of bond money. Almost all bonds are done this way, but the key point is that it is done out of the interest money generated by the bond. I wondered why the fact that they were paid out of the interest was so carefully delineated in the recent bond update - this is why. Apparently, this is one of those "it's always done this way" things that stands up to legal scrutiny.
2. Environmental Impact Analysis - SLV CARE asks the court for an order to have an environmental impact analysis carried out as per CEQA (California Environment Quality Act) requirements.
I found that the District had ascertained that such an analysis was not required in our school closures (indeed, it's uncommon for a school closure to require one), but this summer they did pay out money to have a preliminary analysis done after the legal action was brought to them. Indeed, at the September 16 school board meeting, Steven Graves, who conducted the analysis, expressed surprise at the request, and cited the CEQA regulation stating that it was not necessary. The totally foreseeable result of the preliminary analysis was that the school closures would have no environmental impact, and that a full analysis was not necessary.
3. District Advisory Committee - SLV CARE asks the court for an order to have the District "reconstitute a district advisory committee" and tell that committee about the results of the environmental impact analysis.
As mandated by state
regulation, a district advisory committee to decide upon appropriate uses
for the unused school buildings is now being formed. It was announced
at the first school board meeting after the schools were empty (August
19), as was always the plan. (I'm still not sure what was meant by "reconstitute",
unless they were talking about the school closure committee, but that
committee was not under the regulation they cited.)
4. Public Records - SLV CARE asks the court for an order requiring that the District provide them with copies of certain public records.
SLV CARE claims to have mailed a request to the District Office for certain records. The District claims they never received this letter. The District has now given SLV CARE these records.
5. More Public Records and School Closure - SLV CARE asks for the public records supplied to members of the school board at public meetings. Additionally, it asks for an order declaring the District's school closure decision be rendered null and void.
The public records supplied to the school board at meetings are available in the District Office. Before each meeting, they make three copies for members of the community - anyone can just walk in and pick them up. Others may be made upon request.
Then there's the school closure decision.
In addition, SLV CARE asks for reimbursement of their attorney fees by the district.
Commentary - 3 Categories
When I look at these demands, they seem to fall into three categories:
1) Things that are legally required for the District to do, and which either had already been done, or would be done at the appropriate time. (Numbers 1, 3, and 4 above)
Apparently, SLV CARES thinks the District is willing to break State regulations right and left. In fact, a mere phone call or email will explain any of these. Did members of SLV CARE even sit down with board members and ask them to explain (it is the part of the job of being a board member to do this) before proceeding to legal action?
I also note that a certified letter asking for documents is a lot less expensive than an attorney (although in this case they want someone else to pay for the attorney - specifically, our children).
2) Things that weren't legally required, but the District is doing anyway to satisfy this legal action, effectively wasting even more money. (Number 2 above)
3) Reverse the school closure decision. I don't know the status of this demand now. When the case was filed, the school year hadn't started yet (although a lot of the moving had already occurred). But it should be clear by now that this is the only real concern of SLV CARE - the rest is smokescreen.
Countersuit - At this point, the SLV Teachers' Association is consulting with attorneys regarding how best to proceed with a countersuit. The key will be whether the demands of SLV CARE are found to be "lawsuit-worthy". If they are not, then there will be grounds to retrieve the money lost to the District on this legal action. Sadly, the wasted time and energy cannot ever be recovered.