The school board enthusiastically approved Komey Vishakan, the district's compliance manager, as Palo Alto Unified's first-ever general counsel on Tuesday night.
Vishakan, who has worked for the district in part- and then full-time roles since 2016, was selected out of a pool of seven candidates, said Deputy Superintendent Karen Hendricks. Hendricks described an "extensive" reference check process that turned up ample positive comments about Vishakan.
Board members, who unanimously approved Vishakan's contract, lauded her varied professional background, work ethic and familiarity with this school district and community.
"She's been professional. She's been strong in taking positions on things. She has not bowed to pressure," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said. "She's done a lot of research on anything I've been involved with her on."
The general counsel role is years in the making and is expected to help support proactive legal compliance and cut down on bills with outside law firms, which have ballooned in recent years. Superintendent Don Austin said he plans to bring to the board every three months a progress report on reducing external legal fees.
In Palo Alto Unified, Vishakan was first a part-time legal specialist and then promoted to full-time manager of policy and legal compliance at a time of intense scrutiny of the district's handling of these areas. A licensed attorney, she has managed Public Records Act requests and supported the district's compliance with a federal resolution agreement to correct violations of civil rights law Title IX. Vishakan previously worked as a litigation manager and prosecutor in Australia and the United Kingdom, among other positions. (View her resume here.)
Baten Caswell asked Austin to explain why he recommended a candidate who has not practiced educational law. Some community members also voiced concern about this gap in Vishakan's experience.
"Her knowledge of how the school district works is a difference maker," Austin responded. "She sees it, understands it and is very competent in her ability."
Austin also emphasized that the in-house attorney is meant to be a generalist and will not replace outside attorneys the district turns to for expert advice on special education law or construction management.
The general counsel will report directly to the school board with a dotted line to the superintendent. The board's policy review committee also plans to take up soon revising a policy that states only the board president can communicate with legal counsel to allow all board members to have access to Vishakan.
Vishakan's new employment contract includes an annual salary of $188,634 and the same health, dental, vision and other fringe benefits available to other administrative employees, among other provisions. The board will evaluate Vishakan's performance at least once a year under the contract. The contract begins Jan. 1, 2019, and lasts through June 30, 2020.
In other business Tuesday, the board elected board member Jennifer DiBrienza as its new president and board member Todd Collins as vice president for 2019.
The board also approved a memorandum of understanding with the Palo Alto Police Department that had been revised in response to parent and community concerns about lacking protections for students of color and students with disabilities and mental illness.
Baten Caswell made a failed motion to add further language about a new state law that provides protections for juveniles when subject to interrogation by law enforcement; other board members said that it's not necessary to repeat what is already law and doing so would further complicate a much-delayed document. Baten Caswell cast the sole dissenting vote against the memorandum of understanding.
District leadership is now asking schools to fill out a form any time a school resource officer or law enforcement officer comes to a campus to question or arrest a student so the district can collect and monitor this data, according to an email Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Initiatives and Operations Lana Conaway sent to principals on Tuesday.