The Mountain View Whisman School District cut big checks to law firms this year, spending over $360,000 so far on matters including charter schools, real estate and labor negotiations.
Payment data released by the school district and compiled by the Voice shows the district paid $361,181 to its three legal firms in the 2018-19 school year through the end of April, an increase of 58% over the prior year.
The most recent months are also among the most expensive, particularly March ($64,001) October ($58,843) and January ($55,084). The vast majority of the money went to two of the district's three legal firms, Dannis Woliver Kelley and Orbach Huff Suarez & Henderson LLP.
Like most districts of its size, Mountain View Whisman does not employ in-house legal counsel, instead seeking help from outside firms on a contract basis. Costs tend to escalate as the district needs expertise on a broad range of topics, from personnel matters to federal Office for Civil Rights complaints.
Attorneys were an integral part of the district's strategy for responding to Bullis Mountain View (BMV), a new nonprofit that sought to open a charter school in the district. BMV submitted a charter petition to the district in October last year, which was grudgingly approved by the school board, but efforts to open the charter school fizzled in early April amid finger-pointing from both sides.
District officials relied heavily on an attorney from Dannis Woliver Kelley who penned letters to BMV on behalf of the district for months and provided guidance on murky California charter school laws.
Mountain View Whisman also spent the last year deep in negotiations over real state, which could explain the big uptick in legal costs. District administrators have held frequent meetings with Google over the possibility of housing a new school in the city's North Bayshore area, which was recently rezoned to allow construction of up to 9,850 homes. School board members and Mountain View City Council members alike are seeking dedicated land for a school campus, but it's unclear how much Google will be on the hook to provide.
The district also spent months negotiating with developer FortBay on including teacher housing at a massive 716-unit apartment complex proposed at 777 W. Middlefield Road. Of those units, 144 will belong to the district and be made available as affordable teacher housing.
District officials declined to say how much was spent on each item, citing attorney-client privilege as a reason to keep line-item billing confidential. District spokeswoman Shelly Hausman acknowledged that legal bills have grown, which she said is the result of "big projects" that require advice.
"Our expenses with (Dannis Woliver Kelley) include topics such as personnel, special education, staff housing, negotiations with labor unions, North Bayshore, real estate, Brown Act, and Office for Civil Rights, in addition to charter school questions," she said in an email.
Legal firms tend to get intimately involved in charter school matters in school districts, including the Los Altos School District and more recently Mountain View Whisman, because of the deep effect they have on the district's bottom line. School districts are required under California law to provide facilities -- including outdoor space -- to charter schools that are "reasonably equivalent" to comparable district-run schools.
Money is also transferred out of the school district's general fund to charter schools based on how many of the charter school's students live within the district's boundaries. Budget estimates from February found that if BMV opened as planned, Mountain View Whisman would have lost $1.67 million from its budget in the upcoming school year, escalating to $2.23 million the next year.