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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Money in the Right Places

A basic article in today's PI about the state of the District's finances. Not in the red, has a rainy day surplus (which some want to point to as the big lie that "see, we do have money, we don't need to close schools") and that the state needs to provide more stable funding or SPS (and nearly all other districts in the state) will have budget shortfalls in the coming years. Not much new but then there's this line:

"This year's budget cycle marked the first time academic priorities were considered when the operating budget was developed."

Charlie has said many times that academics should be the primary issue driving spending and not all the other issues that face the district. An admission that this is the first time that academic priorities were "considered" for the operating budget is kind of breathtaking. Let's hope it remains a priority in the budget.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Everett paper did a very interesting editorial, that to me speaks about putting money in the wrong place, namely DWT:

Law firm's pro bono work costs Seattle schools plenty

John Burbank

For 200 years, Americans have built our democracy with the growth of universal public school education. Public schools are gathering places for democracy. They take in all children, from different walks of life, different families and different backgrounds. One crucial lesson that children learn in public school is that you can get along with different kids. Some may be richer, some poorer, some white, some black, some fast, some slow, some smart and some not so smart, all Americans.

In Washington, we have embraced that notion. But last month, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, set in motion the means to unravel the social compact of integrated public schools. In a case brought by one small group of Seattle parents - Parents Involved in Community Schools - the Supreme Court decided that the best way to remedy racial discrimination in public schools is to not address racial inequities. It endorses a game of pretend - if we pretend that racial discrimination isn't a historical and current fact of life in America, then it isn't!

Seattle has open choice for high schools. While the idea of choice itself resonates with parents, there has to be a formula for deciding who gets into schools that are oversubscribed. Factors for that included, first, if another sibling was already in the chosen school (sibling preference), and then race (if the school is way out of whack with district averages) and proximity to school.

Parents Involved in Community Schools did not like the schools that their kids were slated to attend. So they sued the school district. They didn't sue over sibling preference, or proximity, which they could have done. They chose to sue over the racial integration tie-breaker. This attracted support from the turn-back-the-clock crowd of people who oppose integration. The result is a whole lot more damage to racial integration across the country than the Parents Involved in Community Schools probably anticipated. But who knows - they seem to be happy about the outcome.

So does the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine (DWT), which took this case for the Parents Involved in Community Schools as pro bono - that is, they didn't charge for their services. Now they intend to request that the Seattle School District pay the bills for their work for re-segregation. They say they will plow this back into more pro bono work, but we don't need any more of this kind of community "service" litigation.

I am surprised DWT is embracing the Supreme Court decision - the firm has a big emphasis on diversity in its partnership and mentoring new minority colleagues. Former Gov. Gary Locke, who knows a lot about discrimination, is one of the partners. DWT states, "We believe that increasing the diversity of our attorneys and staff is central to our ability to fulfill our commitments to our clients and the community. In short, diversity is critical to DWT's long-term success."

After the Supreme Court decision, DWT stated that "School districts around the country should now focus on improving how and what they teach all children." That's nice, but hard to do when you are billing the Seattle School District for over $1 million - money that could go to teaching children. DWT did make a donation of between $5,000 and $10,000 to the Alliance for Education to support the Seattle Schools. Now that appears to be just a figleaf for legal greed.

In fact, if DWT is sincere about improving education across the country, the firm would acknowledge the need for full-day kindergarten, high quality pre-kindergarten, more school days in the year, lower student-teacher ratios, and funding for music, arts and athletics, to start with. It is a lot easier to have true color-blind education when the resources are available for high quality education for all children.

So here's an idea for DWT's next pro bono venture: Lobby the Legislature to meet the constitutional paramount duty of education for all children. They could start by proposing that legal services should no longer be exempt from the sales tax. That new revenue, close to $200 million a year, could be dedicated to the public schools, improving the educational opportunities for all children. That would be true pro bono work.

http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20070711/OPINION04/707110306/-1/OPINION

Jet City mom said...

Thanks for the link anonymous

But um- I wonder what his viewpoint would have been if his kids didn't get into Ballard?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Again, I am mystified (and have still never heard an answer) as to why those parents did not work with Don Nielson when he was creating Center School. No one ever said publicly when it was being developed that it was not what QA/Magnolia parents wanted. So we have another school (a good one to be sure but it's costing a lot of money to sustain)and yet still have unhappy parents.

Good editorial.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, John Burbank!

Note - he is actually a Seattleite but writes every other Weds in Everett. He is exec director of Economic Opportunity Institute www.eoionline.org

I didn't know that legal services were exempt from sales tax - I wonder if their gross revenues are subject to B&O tax (which also ends up in the general fund, source of public education funding.)

Anonymous said...

Melissa:

Instead of being mystified, why don't you contact Don Nielsen yourself and ask him questions about The Center School?

Regarding John Burbank's editorial:
It's real easy to pass judgement on people you don't know and issues you don't understand.

Once again everyone, PICS was not against diversity or integration.
We were and are against descrimination. Our high schools are diverse without the use of the racial tiebreaker. It is up to the Seattle School District to improve all the high schools with a good principal, good teachers, strong academics and a safe and disciplined environment for learning. If they can do this, the neighborhood kids will return to the schools instead of opting out to attend the private schools.

By the way, how many of you would work for free for 7 years? Our attorneys did work for free for 7 years! They won and now its time to get paid.

Roy Smith said...

By the way, how many of you would work for free for 7 years? Our attorneys did work for free for 7 years! They won and now its time to get paid.

They said they were doing it pro bono (i.e., they were working for free) - they should show some integrity and stick to their word. Nobody would be upset about this if they had taken the case on a contingency basis (i.e., we won't ask to get paid unless we win), but never a word was said about being paid by anybody until after the case was over.

PICS obviously never could afford to pay a million dollars in legal fees, but now that we've got SPS's (that is, the taxpayers) deep pockets on the hook, lets suck them for everything they've got . . .

And people wonder why lawyers have such a poor reputation . . .

Jet City mom said...

I didn't know that legal services were exempt from sales tax

I figured it was just added in- isn't that what they do for medical services?

I really don't see the point of having it backloaded, wouldn't they just increase fees even higher to accomodate?


And yes I knew that Burbank was local, that was why I wondered if he would have the same perspective if his kids didn't attend Ballard.

Jet City mom said...

And people wonder why lawyers have such a poor reputation . . .

Did the legal firms that SPS hired to assist them with their lawsuits donate their time?

Roy Smith said...

Did the legal firms that SPS hired to assist them with their lawsuits donate their time?

I seriously doubt it, but they never presented themselves as donating their time, the way Davis Wright Tremaine did. Like I said, nobody would have a problem with DWT asking to have their fees paid if they had said all along that that was their intention. However, they said all along (until after the case was over) that their intention was to donate their time.

With regards to sales tax on lawyers fees, there is no sales tax on professional services of any type. Yes, if the sales tax was expanded to cover professional services, the likely impact would be that the clients would pay the sales tax. However, this would probably make the sales tax somewhat less regressive as most of the people who pay for professional services are either businesses or relatively wealthy people.

Anonymous said...

Pro bono work by DWT, pro bono is often just another form of marketing with a sensitive face. But in this case I think they will see its has backfired when they decided to bill SPS for their fees.
Yes 7 years is a long time, but, let’s not be naive, they do this for specific purpose. To get their name out in public and if they hit the jackpot its all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where lucky for them, the court was on the strong side with conservative judges. had this happened in 4/5 years ago I think we would have seen a different outcome.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see the itemization of the $1MM fee, including hours, billing rates, and expenses - likely partners at $3-400/hour, staying at expensive hotels, copies billed out at dollars per page...

Wonder if it's worth the PR hit - though if they're a big firm they are probably not too interested in the kinds of clients who would care - and who couldn't afford their billing rates.

Somehow, DWT working for free, and the pain and suffering of the parents who couldn't get into Ballard are just not a compelling story...

Anonymous said...

ultimate fan,

when your civil rights are violated, will it become a compelling story?

Jet City mom said...

I don't know if picking what school your child attends is a civil right-

But I also think it is naive for the school district to approach their legal action assuming they won't have to pay costs.
They didn't seem to have any problem using taxpayer money to hire outside law firms & I assume they are familiar with normal precedent of the loser paying the fees.
I expect they were just confident that they would win, encouraging them to stick with it that long- even though Mark Green (who was the SPS attorney at the time) told a board member that when they won, they didn't have to actually change the assignment process.

It is interesting to me- that while a huge fuss is being made about the legal firm looking for fees, we tiptoe around any reference to SPS previous policies as violating state law.

Anonymous said...

I hope that if and when my civil rights are violated, it will be about something more than my having to go to a different public school than the one I wanted to go to.

Anonymous said...

"By the way, how many of you would work for free for 7 years? Our attorneys did work for free for 7 years! They won and now its time to get paid."

Then PICS should pay the bill, just like every other litigant who hires an attorney.

To believe that this is anything other than a way for DWT to double dip (i.e. report the hours as pro bono to the ABA, then turn around and switch it to for profite when the time comes) is naive.

Anonymous said...

"It is interesting to me- that while a huge fuss is being made about the legal firm looking for fees, we tiptoe around any reference to SPS previous policies as violating state law."

What polcies are you referring to? Even the tie-breaker was deemed okay by the WA St Court under I200 and the WA consitution. That does not change with the S Ct decision, as those are issues of state, not federal law.

Anonymous said...

"They didn't seem to have any problem using taxpayer money to hire outside law firms & I assume they are familiar with normal precedent of the loser paying the fees"

The School District was sued. That means that they have to defend themselves. And, for 99% of all Ameican lawsuite, both sides pay thier own fees. This is the American rule, as opposed to the Bristish rule where the looser pays fees.

As for the Districts fees, they have spent 434,000 in seven years, having were the winning party at the trial court, the Washington Supreme Court, and the entire Ninth Circuit. You don't quit a case when you are the winning party.

Given that DWT is talking about 1.5 to 1,75 million, I think the District was responsible pretty responsible in keeping the costs low (plus, even if they had one, the District would not have gotten its fees from PICS).

Bottom line, DWT wants thier "pro bono" cake, to eat it (reap the adversiting and recruiting value), and then to get a bowl of ice cream (fees) on top of it.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Brose:

You write: "By the way, how many of you would work for free for 7 years? Our attorneys did work for free for 7 years! They won and now its time to get paid." Why were your attornys not getting paid by you? Isn't the point of fee recovery for reimbursement? Oh wait, that was because DWT was touting this as "pro bon" work for those seven years.

Had you lost, and DWT suddenly said, we changed out minds, it is not pro bono after all, would you have paid them?

Anonymous said...

"Did the legal firms that SPS hired to assist them with their lawsuits donate their time?"

After a cetain point, yes. But again, these firms never claimed to be doing the work pro bono. Though they certainly give the District a discount.

Anonymous said...

Even the Times, whose lawyers are DWT, keep running letters to the editor chiding the firm. I wonder if the Times will take the risk of actually wieghing in directly via editorial.

New definition of "pro bono"

So Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine will extract over $1 million from Seattle Public Schools for "pro bono" work in the recent legal battle over Seattle's admissions policies ["Income not always perfect tiebreaker," Local News, Jun 30]. This will punish the district for honest efforts to comply with the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which was the law of the land until last week.

Law partner Harry Korrell claims that this money "will allow the firm to do more pro bono work." But if this future pro bono work has been paid for in advance by the Seattle Schools' $1 million, it will hardly be pro bono, will it?

"Pro bono" means "for the good of," and is usually short for "pro bono publico" -- for the good of the public. In Mr. Korrell's use of the term, however, it is evidently short for "pro bono Davis Wright Tremaine."

Until now, I have associated the firm's name with sponsorship of local public television. For me, this made them one of the good guys. They could restore some luster to their name by reconsidering their intention to require a payment that will have a serious impact on Seattle's schoolchildren.

-- Beret Carlson Kischner, Seattle

Melissa Westbrook said...

I was asked why I didn't talk to Don Nielson. I did and it was at the time this was all happening. He waved me off with, "These parents deserve this school." They may have deserved it but they didn't not want it.

Again, it is quite odd that all these QA/Magnolia parents didn't rise up and tell him and the Board no and ask for what they really wanted.

Jet City mom said...

I think that the policy while the 9th circuit felt it didn't violate state law ( but not IMO- I think it violates intent of i-200)
it does violate federal.
The Washington Supreme Court issued an adverse decision. Instead of applying a plain, unambiguous meaning to the language of I-200, the court gave it a tortured meaning. The majority reasoned that because the “open choice” program applies equally to whites and nonwhites, it does not violate I-200. The case then returned to federal court for a determination on whether the race-based program violates federal law. The court heard oral argument in June, 2005. Subsequently, the Ninth Circuit ruled that, although the race-based plan did not violate I-200, it nonetheless violated the federal Constitution.

Anonymous said...

Class of 75, you are clearly quoting a version of the history of the case that is slanted.

The Wa Supreme Court issued a 8-1 decision, they are the final decision makers as to what is and is not acceptable under Washington law.

I think the qoute you use is a tortured discription of a rather well written complex opinion that addressed I-200, the WA consitution, and the WA's belief that the tie-breaker also would meet the US Constituion. And let's not forget that the two 9th Circuit panels that ruled in PICS favor (though one vacated thier own decision) were three judge panels. The en banc 9th Circuit panel (15 or more judges) ruled in the District's favor as well.

Anonymous said...

Kathleen Brose, you make me a bit sick. Nice that you won, but very sad about your myopic outlook. You think it is ok for a law firm that worked on your behalf to collect millions? Why don't you pay it?

Anonymous said...

Melissa:

Regarding The Center School, many parents did complain about the smallness of the school and the fact that it wasn't a comprehensive high school. The Queen Anne/Magnolia Task Force was successful in getting The Center School created. We owe gratitude to the volunteers, many of them public school teachers, who helped develop the school. Even though it wasn't what we initially wanted, many high schoolers have received a fine education the few years that the school has existed. The Center School "captured" many students that would have been lost to private schools.
That was and is a good thing for the District. The Center School isn't the right academic fit for every kid, but some kids clearly have thrived there according to the WASL numbers, including my daughter.

Regarding the PICS lawsuit:

Here are my final comments on it.
No matter what I say, some of you will continue to disagree with the actions of PICS and the outcome of the lawsuit. You are entitled to your opinions.

Winning the lawsuit was actually bittersweet. We didn't want to sue the District. It was a difficult decision. We knew, and the District knew, that it was going to be expensive on both sides. However, we couldn't get the District to stop discriminating against our high schoolers without the lawsuit. We chose to stay and fight rather than give up.

The question now is how will the District proceed? What assignment plan will they end up with? Will Queen Anne and Magnolia get a new comprehensive high school? What will they do to improve all of the under-subscribed schools? Will West Seattle High School get a 6 period day? Stay tuned.

I look forward to reading about your ideas, suggestions and comments about these issues and more.

Sincerely,

Kathleen Brose

Brita said...

Hello all,

I recently met Kathleen Brose and regardless of the fact that she and I disagree about this issue, I believe her to be a principled and thoughtful person.

Jet City mom said...

Anonymous said...

Kathleen Brose, you make me a bit sick. Nice that you won, but very sad about your myopic outlook. You think it is ok for a law firm that worked on your behalf to collect millions?


At least she has the courage of her convictions which is a lot more than I can say about the multiple posts by Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Our legislators have been holding our feet to fire on spending. Now that schools are closing and the district is in the black again, will we see action on state funding increases? How can we use this to pressure them?

Anonymous said...

Having read Ms. Brose's guet editorial in the Times this morning, I again feel it necessary to say that she needs to either stop saying things like: "Let us now focus all of our energy and resources on improving all of our schools ..." if she continues to support her large, wealthy, contributes to the Alliance law firm seeking fees for work they called pro bono from the District.

If she wants to see them paid now that they are happy to call this for profit work, she and PICS can alway pay them.

Otherwise, she absolutely needs to stop making the contrite statements about putting all of the time and reasources into struggling schools.

Like the above poster who said that DWT wants its cake, to eat it, and to have some ice cream, I think that is true of Ms. Brose's claim to want to put all reasources into struggling schools. That cannot happen if the reasources are going into DWT.

I would encourage Ms. Brose to continue to be a person of principal, and as the client (i.e. the person in charge) demand her attorney stop pursuing fees from the District. I think that will go a long way to people believing that the PICS group is not out to harm the district, and in particular the minority students in the struggling schools.

Anonymous said...

The district's finances are indeed on sound footing now, and we should all celebrate that fact. But the PI failed to report that the district's own forecast, released on June 28 at the finance committee meeting, predicts escalating budget deficits over the next five years unless expenses are cut and/or revenues rise more than currently projected. Deficits begin in 08-09 at $16M and rise to $33M in 11-12. And these predictions do not include likely salary increases and cost of the new staffing standards budgeting.

So there are tough budget challenges ahead due to structural issues. This is why the board is closing schools and reducing bussing costs.