By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.