San Diego Unified stonewalls Sally Smith

Citizen on a mission sues district for violating state public records act

Marne Foster
  • Marne Foster

San Diego Unified School District is discriminating against a student advocate in her quest to obtain public records, says a newly filed lawsuit filed on behalf of San Diego resident Sally Smith.

Over the past six years, Smith has been dogged in her quest to end illegal school fees and raise awareness of poor investigations into sexual assaults and other abuses within the country's eighth-largest school district.

To help in her quest, Smith regularly submits public records requests to the district. Oftentimes, those requests are met with resistance from school officials.

In November 2014, Smith sued the San Diego Unified School District after she was denied access to log on to district computers to view public documents that are only offered on those certain computers. While that case continues to make its way through court, Smith has filed a new lawsuit.

On May 24, attorney Paul Boylan, who specializes in public records law, filed a lawsuit on Smith's behalf after the district refused to hand over legal bills that the district paid to outside counsel who were advising school-board members on the controversy surrounding former trustee Marne Foster.

In December 2015, Foster was accused and later pleaded guilty to accepting gifts from a fundraiser she threw for her son. Foster had also come under fire for her role in filing a claim against the district for her son.

In response, the district hired legal firm DLA Piper to look into the alleged abuses of power. But a short time later, trustees voted to suspend the legal contract after the San Diego County district attorney announced that a criminal investigation had been launched. On March 8, trustees approved paying DLA Piper $34,000 for work leading up to the D.A.’s investigation.

Smith wanted to see the invoices for legal work, documents that are typically available under California's public records law. Nine days after filing her request, the district responded by stating there were "no non-privileged documents responsive to your request."

Days later, Smith responded, "This is not a legal document. It is a standard request for payment detailing what taxpayers paid for. I made the request...just a few days after the San Diego Unified School Board approved paying the bill."

Again, the district refused: "...[T]here are no non-privileged documents responsive to your request. More specifically Government Code 6276.04 protects attorney client communications, in addition to Section 6068 of the Business and Professions Code and Sections 952 and 954 of the Evidence Code."

Smith once again contacted attorney Boylan to file a lawsuit.

Boylan says that the district has perpetually violated the state public records act and is essentially discriminating against Smith.

"This case is simple," Boylan wrote in a May 26 email. "Smith wants to examine invoices for legal services paid for with taxpayer dollars. It's an important issue, and the public has the right to examine this and any spending. In my opinion San Diego Unified is willfully violating state public records law by denying citizens like Smith their right to access and examine public documents....

"All my client asked for is copies of invoices for legal services that were paid for with public tax dollars. [Smith] did not ask for any attorney/client communications, just basic invoices with dates, payments, et cetera. Instead of turning over these invoices, even redacted ones, the district chose to flat out refuse to produce anything, and this blanket refusal will result in a waste of taxpayers’ dollars."

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Those who have nothing to hide - HIDE NOTHING!

The issue, is quite simple, taxpayer funds are being used to pay these legal bills - which in essence makes us the owners. I understand 'confidential' redaction - however, it is appearing there is information the District does not want the public to know.

I would recommend others begin asking the tough questions relative to legal fees. Just how many legal fees are residents dollars paying for annually? Do a PRA - and ask that they be broken down per category.

If records were revealed it would show that college education was wasted on school administrators and idiot school boards.

What most dont realize is just how much power the districts legal counsel have in regards to the managing of many details of district business. The board, superintendent, and many higher ups all answer to the general counsel. In fact, the general counsel and superintendent co-answer and advise to the board with everyone one else beneath them. Must be nice to have at ones disposal the resources to "happily" submit the request for approval BY the board for your own legal defense monies and get to hand pick who is gonna represent you and everyone involved with the litigation.

The whole system is a sham and he/she holds the power. Wonder how many lowly sdcs employees had to wait in line behind the legal teams requests for approval to pay for their claims of the same?

What LCAP fund does the legal budget come out of and is it capped? I think a while back you wrote about school supplies fund being converted for the use for legal funding?

Is there a checks and balances at all? If the general counsel can approve claims up to 70,000 unchecked by the board and can also approve claims up to 120,000 with (wink) getting the superintendent's approval before they have to get approval from the board....thats alot of moula to have at ones disposal dont you think?

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