FUSD, trustees at odds over legal spending disclosure

The Fresno BeeAugust 8, 2012 

An attempt by Fresno Unified trustees to shed light on details of the district's legal costs for special education cases and other litigation was rebuffed Wednesday by district officials.

Trustees' frustration surfaced Wednesday night during a discussion of hiring outside law firms. The board voted 5-2 to approve legal and investigative services agreements, after a lengthy discussion about why district staff has not provided more detailed information. Michelle Asadoorian and Larry Moore voted against the agreements.

The discussion began after Asadoorian asked why the district didn't respond to the board's previous request for a breakdown of legal fees spent over the past five years.

The board postponed action on the agreements on June 20 after Asadoorian sought more detailed information, which she expected would be presented by Wednesday's board meeting.

According to data released to The Bee under a California Public Records Act request, Fresno Unified spent $1.8 million on legal expenses for 2010-11 and $1.7 million in 2011-12.

Sandra Hammond, executive director of Education Perspectives for the Central Valley, an advocacy organization, has been requesting data on the district legal expenses for months. Her organization is assisting Alice de Alba-Uribe in a legal battle with the district over special education services.

On Wednesday, Hammond again urged the board to stop spending so much money on legal cases. She said the district "overspent" on a placement issue with de Alba-Uribe's daughter.

Hammond said she sent a letter to Superintendent Michael Hanson in January asking him to intervene and put an end to the legal battle. Hammond said she has not received an answer.

She asked the board to "investigate who this money is going to and why."

Ruth Quinto, deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, and Mary Beth de Goede, the district's general counsel, told the board that its June 20 request for an accounting of spending at each law firm would have taken too much staff time to accomplish.

Quinto said the legal invoices contain confidential information that would have to be removed before the invoices could be made public.

De Goede said removing all of that information would be a time-consuming challenge.

"It's a massive task because you have to go in and read those invoices and we are talking pages and pages and pages," de Goede said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6659, eromero@fresnobee.com or @ezraromero on Twitter.

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