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Law firm finds no conflict of interest in school board member’s Doyle Park vote

By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tad Wakefield

Santa Rosa school board trustee Tad Wakefield had no conflict of interest when he cast the deciding vote on March 16 that resulted in the closure of Doyle Park Elementary School, according to an independent legal opinion released Friday.

The six-page opinion echoes the assessment of the school board’s own legal counsel, and concludes that Wakefield did not violate conflict of interest laws or policies when he voted to close the Doyle Park campus to make way for the French American Charter School.

Just prior to voting, Wakefield publicly acknowledged that he had expressed interest in having his two young children attend the French charter school and said he had been advised by the board’s attorney that he had no conflict.

The vote prompted a civil rights legal group in San Francisco to threaten legal action if the board did not rescind its vote.

The opinion released Friday was prepared by the Lozano Smith law firm, which represents school districts across California. It said Wakefield’s decision posed no conflicts under applicable government codes, the school district’s own policies or common law doctrine.

The opinion states that Wakefield’s actions “do not present a conflict of interest because he did not receive any benefit through his actions nor are Board Members prohibited from making decisions affecting their own children’s schools or, as in this case, potential schools.”

On March 23, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area sent an email to the board protesting Wakefield’s vote, arguing that common law doctrine and the school’s own policies should have compelled Wakefield to recuse himself, not only from the vote but from any part of the discussion leading up to the vote.

But Lozano Smith attorneys said that common law doctrine does not preclude school board members from voting on issues affecting their children’s education.

“Indeed, any such rule might effectively prevent parents from serving as board members, which would be an inappropriate result,” the opinion said.

Board President Larry Haenel said the opinion was fowarded to the lawyers’ committee Friday afternoon and that the board’s legal counsel would seek to settle the matter to avoid a legal challenge.

“There’s no conflict,” said Haenel. “I think the document speaks for itself.”

Wakefield said Friday afternoon that he was still reviewing the legal opinion and would comment on the issue later.

The civil rights committee could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.





13 Responses to “Law firm finds no conflict of interest in school board member’s Doyle Park vote”

  1. Clay Mitchell says:

    @Grapevines-

    I don’t doubt that the process of getting things passed by local governing boards may very well involve “politics as usual”, your comments indicate a potential lack of understanding about the facts of the situation.

    For example, there is NO COST for students to attend the charter school. It is a dependent charter- a public school administered by the district.

    Second, the proposal that was approved included a provision that gave registration priority to current Doyle Park students for the charter- meaning that they are welcomed and the door is open for them to participate in (what is perceived by many as) a desirable charter organization.

    While I agree that there is some question over the wisdom of Mr. Wakefield voting for this due to appearances, that does not equate to illegal activity.

    And regardless of the foibles of how this went down, the facts are quite straightforward. Doyle Park is under-performing- I don’t know what the cause is, but their API scores are below comparable elementary schools in the district, they have been in program improvement for 3 years or so, and their low enrollment means that the school does not cover it’s expenses.

    This has very little to do with the ethnic makeup or socio-economic status of the student body- as evidenced by higher scores at other elementary schools with similar student profiles.

    There are some that claim that the district has thrown this school under the bus- that they have not made adequate efforts to bolster and reverse the declining trends. That is a fair discussion to have, one which I’m not really informed enough about to have an educated opinion.

    At this point, the district faces a clear set of circumstances. The board approved the SRFACS charter UNANIMOUSLY, and as such took on the responsibility to find a campus to house the program for the 2012-2013 school year- if they do not, then the charter can be taken elsewhere (along with the students and funding that is allocated to them).

    At the same time, the district has this school with flagging enrollment that is struggling to meet standards; as a result of low attendance, is hemorrhaging money. In response to the budget challenges the district has been facing, this campus was identified in 2008 as a potential site for closure.

    With no immediate use for the campus, the board was hesitant to close it (as evidenced by their decision not to vote in February, when the closure was considered independent of the location of the charter school). It makes no sense to have an unused facility.

    But given a viable alternative use for the asset, the board decided that this move has the potential to solve both issues that they are facing, by (hopefully) cutting the financial drain and installing a more sustainable program.

    In doing so, they made some provisions to minimize the hardship on current Doyle Park students by giving them priority enrollment at the charter (which would help those who would have trouble with transportation) as well as giving them alternative elementary school sites that are performing better.

    I also know this- the SRFACS concept holds broad support- from the County Superintendent of Schools on down to the SRCS Board and district staff. It is the result of years of planning and work put in by a dedicated group of parents and educators- it didn’t just materialize last November.

    So while there may be some concern over the specific way that this discussion and vote happened, the Board’s decision to accept the district staff’s recommendation to close Doyle Park and install SRFACS at that campus sits on solid substantiation based on the facts of the current situation.

    That doesn’t mean it won’t create some hardship- change is never easy. That being said, I’m really disappointed by the antics of those who were on the other side of this vote.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 7

  2. judy delaney says:

    He should have abstained.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 9

  3. Grapevines says:

    You can go out and enlist almost any law firm on the planet to find out that what you did was correct and they will come back with “evidence” to support you. There used to be a joke going around that there were only three lawyer jokes that were actually jokes, the rest were true stories. Lawyers lie, why do you think so many of them end up as politicians? Happenstance or just a normal progression of events?

    This whole scenario is just the “Good Ol Boys” network doing business as usual here in Sonoma County. Tad Wakefield wanted his kids to attend the “French American Charter School.” Tad Wakefield happens to be a Santa Rosa School Board Trustee. If Tad gets the Doyle Park School closed, then his French American Charter School gets to use it and his kids get in (probably at a discount for his vote to close the school)

    So when the vote comes up does Tad show no common sense and abstain from voting? Are you kidding me? Hell no!! Get those minority kids out of here and get the French American kids in!!

    Good Ol Boy network comes through again. If it does go to court, that Lawyer’s Group protesting it had better hope that the hearing is held somewhere other than Sonoma County. Wouldn’t surprise me if most of the Judges had their families signed up to attend the French American school also.

    Everybody’s back gets scratched except the little people. Isn’t Sonoma county wonderful?

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 15

  4. Missy says:

    Is the PD censor only posting one side of this story & not posting the other responses? Why is that? Time to phone Halifax LLC to let them know that the paper is not posting opinions other than the race baiting lefties who want to keep the school open yet don’t send their kids there.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 6

  5. Accountable says:

    To Running Diva – I agree with you that the Superintendent has managed to stay above the fray in this entire conversation, and as the individual who is providing suggestions to the Board, the accountability for the success of the school district falls directly on her shoulders. SRCSD, as a district, is in year 3 of Program Improvement. 7 out of 10 elementary schools are in PI, and 4 out of 5 middle schools are in PI. What is occurring at Doyle Park is a microcosm of of the dysfunction going on at the District level. I stated before that the decision to close DP is neither new or racially motivated, and I stand by that. It is based on poor leadership at the very top. The Charter Schools in the district are successful because they have a level of independence from the governing board.

    I also commented on another post that the Wright School District seems to be able to effectively teach economically disadvantaged and English Language Learners. R.L. Stevens and J.X. Wilson have posted scores above some schools in more affluent districts. It can be done, but unfortunately, Casey D’Angelo seems quite happy in his position at Rincon Valley.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  6. Ethical Fish says:

    There are no ethical behaviors among attorneys. That’s what they do…they argue the law. Of course it’s a conflict in interest but this is democratic Sonoma County where conflict of interest and corruption is blatant. Unfortunately as children watch they too will follow this activity. Cheating is good especially when you don’t get caught.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 4

  7. Geoff Johnson says:

    Wakefield could have requested an opinion from the FPPC, as to whether he would be in conflict if he participated in the process leading up to his vote, and the vote itself.

    If the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights or some other party files a formal complaint, and the FPPC agrees to investigate, the FPPC will determine for itself whether he had an actionable conflict of interest.

    If Wakefield didn’t receive any direct or indirect financial benefit from his participation, then I doubt that he would be found to have been in conflict.

    But I have no respect for any public official who participates in an action in which he has a personal interest.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 2

  8. Running Diva says:

    How can an elected official have no understanding of what looks bad? He could’ve waited a week or two to sign up his kids. What an idiot. I’m not voting for him next time just because I think idiots shouldn’t hold office, no matter how they vote.

    Thumb up 24 Thumb down 12

  9. Running Diva says:

    @Chris You seem to be ignoring a few pertinent facts. The school wasn’t “failing” so much as the district tossed it under the bus years ago. How is putting 7 principals in there within the last 10 years a good faith effort to turn it around? Did any of the board members or the superintendent pay any attention to that? How can they say, with a clear conscious, that they tried their best and now it’s time to move on? PLUS, how many schools are closed in such a short time? The community meeting they had at Slater was a farce. How will any parents ever believe them ever again that the district cares what the public says?

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 9

  10. Bobbie Baxter says:

    If it looks,quacks and swims like a duck, you can tell me it’s a penguin all day long but it’s still a duck.

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 5

  11. Chris says:

    I really do feel for the parents and children who are losing the school facility they have grown used to attending. I also believe the school board made the right decision. The new charter school is not the issue here. The issue is that to have kept this school operating at a lose of thousands of dollars would have been an irresponsible action. Each dollar committed to maintaining a facility that is not at least breaking even through funding sources is a dollar being denied students throughout the district. If this school would have been kept open, it would have been at the cost of a teacher, school supplies, field trips, and/or other important parts of the education system.

    Education money shouldn’t be wasted to maintain unnecessary facilities. When an option exists to save money and put it into the class room, we should take it and embrace it.

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 8

  12. Michaele Morales says:

    The only board members that have any integrity are board members Gonzalez and Kristof, for they stood by their principles.
    On the other hand, shame on board members Haenel, Jeye, Carle and Wakefeld for bowing down to the entitled FAC parents.
    This whole situation has been suspect from day one, there was a lack of transparency throughout the whole process. Time line: In mid Nov., FAC comes to SRCS to ask to be charter, in mid December, FAC signs on with SRCS, in mid Jan., discussion about closing Doyle Park, end of Jan., the district has fake town hall meeting, where they pretend to listen to parents, students and teachers, mid Feb., they try and close, it doesn’t pass, mid March, they voted 4-2, to close. Although the district says differently, the only catalyst for closing Doyle was the deal district staff made with entitiled FAC to give them the site. One would think that the process of closing a school would take more than two months, but not in SRCS where they made back room deals with FAC. This of course, was a done deal from day one, because the district worked hand in hand with FAC to recruit SRCS students. If only they had only worked so hard for Doyle Park school we wouldn’t be in this mess. Now, they are willing to pay for extra legal representation to essentially fight for the rights for FAC. And they are doing all of this on the backs of the Doyle students, parents and staff, which have been dragged though hell throughout this whole process.
    Shame on Santa Rosa City Schools district staff, and the four board members who voted yes on closure. This is far from over.

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 25

  13. RICHARD says:

    A little girl asked a lawyer, what is one plus one?

    The lawyer replied, what do yo want it to be?

    I do respect good lawyers, sometimes they are our first or last line of defense against government tyranny.

    Thumb up 16 Thumb down 4

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