The Stockton Unified School District Board of Trustees terminated its legal services agreement with Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP at a special meeting on Friday.
Board President Angelann Flores and trustees Donald Donaire, Kennetha Stevens and Sofia Colón were in the majority of the 4-3 vote to end the contract with the San Jose law firm. The move severs the work relationship with Jack Lipton, the trustees’ attorney and a partner at the law firm. Trustees Alicia Rico, Cecilia Mendez and Ray Zulueta voted against the motion.
“I may be a new trustee, but I’ve been following along with board meetings for many years,” Colón said. “In the last few years I have listened very closely to our board meetings and so I’m aware of behaviors and of actions and I’m confident in my vote here.”
Just before the vote, Lipton defended his work on the district’s behalf.
“You should know that a client can fire their attorney at any time and I respect the board’s right to do so, but I hope that the board does not vote to terminate my firm’s contract,” Lipton said.
“It’s really been an honor and a pleasure to work with the district, the board, the administrators and the staff these past several years, and I believe I’ve provided the superintendent and the board with effective representation and sound legal advice.”
Lipton also cautioned trustees that he and his firm are handling “30 to 40” pending cases and matters for the district, including special education cases.
“Abrupt termination of my firm’s contract will put the district at legal risk,” Lipton said. “Time would be needed for the board to consider and select a new law firm, and to get a new attorney up to speed on pending cases … otherwise there is a possibility of defaults against the district.”
Prior to the vote, Mendez said the problem at the district is not the law firm, but the actions of the board. She urged the newly-elected trustees to work with Lipton before making a decision.
“We need to take responsibility,” Mendez said. “We have to keep this ship moving and we need to make sure that all of these cases that we’ve had with this law firm are going to be taken care of or we’re going to be paying double.”
The board hired Lipton at a special meeting held at 2 pm on Feb. 24, 2020. The 2020-21 San Joaquin County grand jury report said the time chosen for the meeting was “unusual” because it fell during normal working hours, when many members of the public are not able to attend.
It also said the board failed to make the contract available to the public and to the trustees who were not supportive of it.
For those reasons, the report said, the board violated California’s sunshine law, the Brown Act, in hiring the law firm.
“This lack of transparency caused anxiety and increased mistrust among the board, the staff and the public,” the report said.
In September, San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools Troy Brown also accused the district of violating the Brown Act over holding a special meeting to approve, without public discussion, the resignation agreement of former Stockton Unified School District Superintendent John Ramirez Jr. The agreement included full Benefits and salary for a year.
The school district agreed to pay Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP $300 an hour for legal services, plus a $600 flat fee for any travel to Stockton, according to the legal services contract. Flores said the district has paid the law firm over $500,000.
Record reporter Hannah Workman covers news in Stockton and San Joaquin County. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @byhannahworkman. Support local news, subscribe to The Stockton Record at https://www.recordnet.com/subscribenow.
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