LANCASTER — Antelope Valley Union High School District Board President Robert “Bob” Davis, Vice President Victoria Ruffin and Clerk Amanda Parrell dismissed concerns raised by more than a dozen district employees and private citizens and ignored the legal advice of longtime District general counsel Bridget Cook on Thursday morning when they approved an open-ended contract with Los Angeles-based law firm Harris & Associates, and two open-ended actions authorizing the firm to pre-qualify a third party to investigate allegations of discrimination and disparate treatment in the suspension and expulsion of minority students and in the district’s hiring and promotional practices.
Motions by trustees Jill McGrady and John Rush to table all three agenda items failed.
McGrady and Rush voted no on all three items. Student trustee Noah Sveiven also voted no.
The Thursday morning special meeting drew an overflow crowd of teachers, classified and other employees who took a personal necessity day from work to attend the meeting, which was announced the day prior.
Trustee John Rush participated in the meeting via teleconference from Meridian, Idaho.
Cook advised the Board that the District has a duty to investigate any allegations of discrimination or disparate treatment in the suspension and expulsion of minority students, and in the district’s hiring and promotional practices, before any third party does.
“I would like to bring that to the Board’s attention that before you vote on it, if you know that there is discrimination there, or suspect that there is discrimination taking place, you need to identify that to staff,” Cook said, “so that we can fulfill our responsibility so that we can continue to receive the funding that we are entitled to so that we can continue to follow our Board policies. … That’s the Board’s responsibility, these are your policies.”
Cook’s admonition was ignored by the Board majority.
Speakers expressed concerns about the cost of the contracts taking money away from students and programs.
“Please put the money that you would use for another attorney into our students,” said Nancy Speaks, a 34-year educator who taught in the District for 28 years.
Teacher Julie Bookman said the Board should not enter into any open-ended contract.
“I think that this kind of investigation is going to handcuff our administrators, our security, and make our schools an unsafe place. I’ve already heard security mention that they no longer feel safe on the campus. They’re afraid every time they have to deal with a student that the student is going to respond physically,” Bookman said, in regard to the agenda related to suspensions and expulsions.
One speaker cautioned Davis, Ruffin and Parrell about a request for an investigation into them for violating a California attorney general opinion should they proceed with authorizing Davis to confer with Harris & Associates on behalf of the Board.
Davis, Ruffin and Parrell initially approved an open-ended contract with Harris & Associates at the Jan. 24 meeting. That was in spite of fact the District has Cook, and an existing contract with Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, one of the state’s leading educational law firms. Davis signed the contract with Harris & Associates on Feb. 1.
The Board has since used the services the firm’s $400-an-hour attorney, John W. Harris, and his $375-an-hour senior associate Herbert Hayden several times since then, apparently without authorization because it was not properly agendized.
The opinion states that a Board may not appoint outside counsel to provide unrestricted advice to the Board when an in-house counsel has been appointed. However, the Board may authorize a specific member of the Board to confer with legal counsel on the District’s behalf so long as such advice is not sought and obtained in an unrestricted manner.
“I do not believe we need the services of Mr. Harris and Harris and Associates,’ McGrady said before the first vote. “I believe it is a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
McGrady asked that the item to authorize Davis to confer with Harris & Associates be tabled until the District receive an invoice.
“Will you table this motion until we receive an invoice from him?” McGrady said.
Davis did not respond.
“We’re moving forward. any further discussion?” Davis said.
McGrady yielded the floor to Sveiven, who encouraged Davis to answer McGrady’s question.
Davis still did not respond.
“I would ask that we table this investigation until the current investigation by the California Bar Association into John W. Harris and Harris & Associates is complete,” McGrady said. “It would be imprudent for us to give this attorney and his firm more work with our District until we have a ruling on this investigation. Will you table this motion.”
Davis again did not directly answer McGrady’s question.
“Moving on,” Davis said.
At that point, Sveiven said the motion to postpone was the obvious and prudent choice. Assuming the agenda item was going to be approved, Sveiven asked Davis how he would ensure the California Attorney General’s opinion not to duplicate in-house counsel.
“And one again, that ends in question mark and I hope to hear an answer,” Sveiven said.
After a moment of silence Sveiven, repeated his request.
“Mr. President, I will give you another opportunity,” Sveiven said.That statement ended in a question mark; please answer?”
“I will look into that,” Davis said.
Davis also denied a request by McGrady and Rush to put a ceiling on the contract with Harris & Associates.
“That will be discussed at a later time,” Davis said, which prompted shouts from the audience to do it now.
John Currado, a 1965 graduate of Antelope Valley High School, said passion runs high in his family for the District.
“I would like to have each and every Board member that haven’t favored the students do what we call in education the three Rs — reconvene, reconsider and respond to everybody behind us,” Currado said.
Palmdale High School teacher and coach Jeff Williams, a 31-year employee of the District, shared how he came to a teaching career.
“In regards to your concern about minority student suspension/expulsion rates, I believe the best intervention you have on your campuses are your coaches and athletic programs,” Williams said. “Coaches establish expectations and norms for their student athletes, many who may come from single parent families, lower economic situations, foster care (or) absentee parent because they work down below,and life lessons.”
At that point Williams reached the end of his three-minute speaking time and Davis did not allow him to finish.
Dennis Davenport, a longtime Antelope Valley resident,asked the Board several questions about Harris & Associates, including which Board member spoke with Harris prior to the Jan. 24 meeting, and whether Board members discussed his hiring prior to the Jan. 24.
“How does any of the Board members that support this contract justify and accept the behavior of Mr. Harris at the Feb. 14 and 28 meeting?” Davenport said. “Again, I’ve said before, it was despicable display. I’ve never seen any attorney in any setting behave and act the way Mr. Harris did.”
Speaker Cynthia Haywood, a former employee of the district and parent of district students, called for respect.
“Things need to be done in a decent and an orderly manner and not with such disrespect,” Haywood said.
“This agenda is nothing less than an attack on each and every hardworking member of AVTA,” Antelope Valley Teachers Association President Dan Shy said.
Shy deemed Davis’ actions reckless and without any forethought on the unintended consequences for employees.
“Alleged discrimination and disparate treatment. Those are serious allegations and without any foundation,” Shy said. “You’re on a witch hunt in search of crimes that haven’t even been reported, let alone committed. “You have attempted to intimidate teachers before, and we were unfazed. And this time again we will not stand idly by while you drag our teachers through the mud. We will fight you every step of the way.”
Shy added accusations of racism should be taken seriously, not tossed out recklessly with no substantiating evidence or even a complaint, as is happening here.
“But if you want to investigate teachers, sir, I’m a teacher,” Shy said. “I worked at Phoenix for 18 years. I had students suspended; most of whom, yes, were minority students. So if you want to investigate start with me.”
Shy later appealed to Parrell, the only Board member with a student in the District, as the swing vote.
“I look at you and I don’t see you as one of these two. All you have to do here is abstain, that’s it,” Shy said, adding the three agenda items she later approved would not make her child’s school safer.
Scott Fish, president of California School Employees Association Chapter 612, which represents the District’s classified employees, questioned the legitimacy of the agenda items listed for the special meeting.
“If the intent was to slip it under without people being made aware, I don’t think you were successful in that,” Fish said.
Fish added the proposed agenda items themselves were concerning.
“The idea that the Board would instigate an investigation into the District it’s supposed to represent is appalling,” Fish said. “You have given zero support to the work that we do. Give some respect to the work that these individuals do day in and day out for our students.”
To share your opinion on this article or any other article, write a letter to the editor and email it to email@example.com or mail it to Letters to Editor, PO Box 4050, Palmdale CA 93590-4050.