Despite pleas from the Fresno Teachers Association on Wednesday, the Fresno Unified School District trustees voted 5-2 to hire more legal counsel for their fight over a no-bid contract.
The board hired Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, an award-winning international law firm, through June. The firm will be paid $750 per hour.
The firm will represent the district in a pending case that questions whether Fresno Unified officials misused the leaseback financing method – a legal exception to the traditional low-bid process – when it awarded the $37 million Gaston Middle School contract to Harris Construction in 2012. A federal investigation of that contract, and others like it, is now underway. The district was earlier sued by Stephen Davis, a local contractor, over the practice.
As of September, the district had paid more than $220,000 in legal fees in the case and is also paying an outside criminal defense attorney to help it comply with the subpoena’s demands.
The district also employs Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo for other legal services.
Trustees Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian voted against hiring the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm, questioning the pricy rate and the recent hiring of several outside attorneys in connection with no-bid contracts. The district will also be on the hook for the law firm’s attorneys to travel to Fresno from their San Francisco offices.
“While I recognize the firm is a good one, I also recognize that using this firm is going to mean we have just increased the fees of this case that the district is incurring … and that is a huge amount of money,” Mills said.
The new law firm has a reputation for litigating complex cases that often involve public policy issues, district spokesman Miguel Arias said. “This case is in that category given the importance of lease-leaseback arrangements to this district and many others throughout the state,” he said.
Tish Rice, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, said she was concerned that the proposal to hire a new law firm was made last minute and was not announced on the original version of the agenda.
“They’re trying to be sneaky about it,” she said. “It was added late on the agenda because they’re trying to sneak this in without the public’s knowledge of what’s going on.”
“(Superintendent Michael Hanson) says they’re going to come out clean, so why do they have to hire another firm to deal with this case if they have nothing to hide?” she said.
Arias rejected Rice’s accusation, saying all agenda material is posted to the district’s website immediately and the addendum was printed in red so that it’s noticeable to the public.
Trustee Cal Johnson and Rice went head to head after Rice said his mind was already made up on the matter and that he had been lobbied by Hanson to vote in favor of the contract.
“No one puts pressure on Cal Johnson,” he said, pointing his finger at Rice. “I’ve been in this business for years. I’ve been living in America for years. This is black history month. I don’t succumb to no superintendent, and I don’t succumb to you. I understand every game that everyone plays.”
Mo Kashmiri, associate executive director of the FTA, urged the board not to approve the matter, saying the money should be spent on students instead.
“We need this board to stand up for the right priorities. This money is for our kids and our classrooms – that’s where the focus should be,” he said. “This is a moment of truth for the board. They’re going to have to decide whose side are they on – the kids or the high-paid administrators. The community will not forget this decision.”