School board lets lawyer go, won't say why | August 12, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 12, 2022

School board lets lawyer go, won't say why

Komey Vishakan was hired in 2018 as Palo Alto Unified's first general counsel

by Zoe Morgan

The Palo Alto school district's first in-house attorney, Komey Vishakan, has been let go "without cause," the Palo Alto school board decided in a special closed session meeting on Aug. 4.

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Email Staff Writer Zoe Morgan at [email protected]


Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 5, 2022 at 8:33 am

S. Underwood is a registered user.

Komey has shoveled an enormous amount of you-know-what for PAUSD. It's very surprising to me that she (apparently) doesn't count as a loyal, toe-the-line insider.

Would love to know the details, although we likely never will. The "advocating for change" breadcrumbs could mean anything. Not surprising is that PAUSD leadership would respond with hostility. She of all people should have known that.

Posted by Just Another Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 5, 2022 at 8:58 am

Just Another Parent is a registered user.

This is unsettling. It made me feel slightly better about our snakey board and super knowing Vishakan was in her role. The super brings trouble where he goes and it only makes me assume he was the driver.

Posted by Paly Teacher
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 5, 2022 at 9:06 am

Paly Teacher is a registered user.

Komey is an excellent attorney with impeccable credentials and experience. I can only surmise she was let go because her competence wasn't compatible with the district office's culture.

Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2022 at 10:46 am

Ferdinand is a registered user.

Let's hope the performance evaluation was clear, fair, respectful, reasonable, and on time. And moreover, let's hope there was interim feedback/communication that allowed Ms. Komey to meet the desired aims of her contract rather than a sink-or-swim situation with no support nor guidance. If the latter, the cloak of confidentiality prevents ongoing improvements. Thank you Ms. Komey for your service to our district.

Posted by Palo Alto Res
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 5, 2022 at 10:53 am

Palo Alto Res is a registered user.

Should we be surprised they push out someone who doesn't match their culture? Look at their actions. For instance, this is the PAUSD Board who only endorses candidates that parrot their views and is an exact duplicate of the current sitting members (in ideas, philosophy and culture). This perpetually ensures there are no changes in educational philosophy, by only endorsing "yes" men/women into the Board.

By "culture" I do not mean skin color or ethnicity. Talking about PAUSD Board's attitude and philosophy towards education, as well as their lack of respecting the greater community of parents and teachers at PAUSD.

The current Board ignores PAUSD teacher suggestions and recommendations. They endorse people who tend not to be in education as a career. Lawyer? Love it. Look at their track record of whom they endorse and get elected on their endorsements.

Shounak Dharap? Lawyer and little experience and all about mediocre academic peformance? Love him. Check.

Current candidate they are now endorsing? Another lawyer with little experience and all about softening the academic performance? Again love her. Check.

Maybe we can fill the entire Board members of PAUSD with lawyers, who have littler experience and only value mediocre academic performance. That way we can just fire all the GCs of PAUSD.

Who cares about term limits on Board members when they hand pick whom they like and vibe with their philosophy in education before they leave? It's the same board, different faces and names, skin color and gender. But it's the same Board with the same ideas, same attitudes and same goals that current Board holds.

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Aug 5, 2022 at 10:58 am

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

@paly teacher - you raise an important point that needs further definition. "District office culture" is something that has changed immensely in the tenure of this Supe. I would define it as allergic to transparency, bullying, aggressive, dismissive of dissent. They've worked to physically keep parents at arms length through the architecture of the DO. It's got more closed doors and "dutch doors" than ever before. Message discipline is everything. Imagine trying to be a lawyer in that environment. The profession is all about delivering bad news and dealing with hard problems. This is a culture that seeks to squelch bad news and always declare that we are the most amazing district with the most amazing leaders. I salute Ms. Komey for her service and wish her well. New applicants to the job should be wary of what they are walking in to.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Aug 5, 2022 at 11:16 am

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

Fired without cause seems pretty obvious given the authoritarian nature of the Board and the Superintendent. I'm willing to bet that Ms. Vishakan got a good healthy wiff of the shady dealings that go on at 25 Churchill. Once she began to speak up she signed her own termination. Unfortunate, but honesty and competence have no place at 25 Churchill. So much for Austin's "let's build people up" mantra for 2022-23. Reality is such that you better not cross him or the Daubers.

Posted by Just Another Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 5, 2022 at 11:27 am

Just Another Parent is a registered user.

Vishakan was one of the few that seemed on the straight and narrow at the district office.
This is another indicator that the Board and Supe are clearly not to be trusted. Sadly the Board seems to be hand picking candidates to fill the vacant seats. Thank you Ms Vishakan for all your hard work and dedication.

Posted by Samuel L
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 5, 2022 at 11:47 am

Samuel L is a registered user.

District counsel should be a neutral party advising the administration and keeping them from harming students. I believe Komey went along with that culture, but maybe she saw enough, grew a conscience, and tried to make changes.

Obviously, the board can't have people who are actually concerned about student welfare or highlight what horrible people they really are in the district.

It'll be nice when Dauber is gone and Austin realizes he has no friends and decides to leave. The only problem is that they'll probably be replaced with similar egomaniacs who think only of themselves and the district's public image.

As a side note, I've had more than a few conversations with PAUSD teachers and staff who all relay that Austin is public enemy #1. If the board truly cares about teachers, why do they continue to extend his contract? The answer is simple. The board doesn't care about teachers, or students.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 5, 2022 at 12:07 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

San Francisco had a recall of some of their BoE earlier this year. New members were appointed and now one of them is likely to be forced to resign because she asked difficult questions which raised calls of racism. Is it possible that something similar is going on here?

If improvements are going to be made then a fear of walking on eggshells is not the way to do it. Improvements are not going to be made unless the PC brigade allow those who are willing to go against the flow do what is necessary to make changes.

We know very little, but it seems from the above comments that suspicions suggest all may not be well in the State of Denmark.

Posted by Forever Name
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 5, 2022 at 1:45 pm

Forever Name is a registered user.

Dismissing an excellent attorney with impeccable credentials and experience who is a woman of color? The odds are so improbable that it couldn't be any more obvious. The Board and Super are hiding something. And Komey Vishakan found it. I'm guessing they paid her a tidy severance to stay quiet about whatever the Board is hiding. Looking forward to whoever can bust that nefarious story wide open. Although if Komey is really as principled as her background suggests, she would "out" the Board anyway, and do right by the families of Palo Alto. Hoping Komey considers that option, and doesn't let egotistical lawyers on the Board like Shounak intimidate her.

Posted by Tj
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 5, 2022 at 6:55 pm

Tj is a registered user.

Shallow Alto is alive and well…….The school board answers to no one…..

Posted by Hal
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 5, 2022 at 9:48 pm

Hal is a registered user.

One of her responsibilities was to monitor and reduce legal billing from outside agencies. My guess, and it is merely that, is that she did not perform that duty as well as those who approved her contract expected. Palo Alto's modern cultural version of a "bar fight" is to pull out the checkbook and send in the attorneys. I would venture to say that the Districts legal fee is so high that without it, we would be able to significantly reduce class size or offer more programs. No conspiracy theory at play here, only economics.

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 5, 2022 at 10:51 pm

Meadow is a registered user.

Direction? The way she went about going her direction was wrong. She created problems then refused to solve them. Her law firms to make nonsense legal arguments. Why tell a disabled student they could not take an online class when the district just spent months teaching online? On line classes were available through the State for years to help students graduate. Thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on what could have been solved with a $300 course. Then there was the overwhelming hypocrisy. Special Education promoted a new model as "individualized study," which is really independent study in online classes with only occasional check ins with a teacher. Special Education already hired teachers for this program, but would not help a disabled child.

Special Education and the law firms she hired made dumb, circular attacks on people. They wrote contracts legally prohibiting families from asking for meetings, then attacked parents for not asking for meetings. Special Education refused to provide parent documents, then attacked parents them for refusing to sign documents they never provided. She allowed Special Education to place children in schools, then claim it didn't know where the kids were. Families do not have the power to place kids in specialized schools with no district help. All problems were due to teachers who did not understand not to refer a child for help. Was the child dying? Put them in Gunn High School. There was a constant debasement of her teachers and employees judgement. The goal was to force parents to incur enormous legal bills and spend months documenting what the district didn't "know." Families are to trust a new mental health model with therapists as district employees and no outside oversight.

The district spent thousands on brochures and studies on the Palo Alto Promise to bring all students up to high standards, while Special Education changed board policies to lower State standards and "alternative" graduation requirements.

Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2022 at 12:28 pm

S. Underwood is a registered user.

Half-agreeing with the commenters above, I wouldn't put it past the small army of highly paid admins in the district office to blame their General Counsel for the fact that they end up in legal morass after legal morass. I mean, if you keep getting sued and having to write checks, it /might/ be your representation. God forbid we swim up stream and think about why we keep getting sued again and again in the first place. The culture of the District Office towards teachers, parents, and students comes to mind.

In short, I don't think anyone can reasonably predict this change will reduce the district's legal troubles. If anything, it seemed Komey was quenching or minimizing lots of little fires better than one could reasonably expect. The more Don wants everything in "pit bull" mode, the more heated battles and incivilities we can expect in arbitrating difficult scenarios.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2022 at 1:29 pm

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

When you promise everything in your "Promise", you better expect a few dissatisfied stakeholders, especially when their children are involved and reality does not approximate the propaganda.

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 7, 2022 at 2:44 am

Meadow is a registered user.

Her response was unprofessional and of questionable ethics for any attorney. The Board is your client, even if they did not re-hire you. It happens all the time. You don't spread gossip implying your past client did not match you as an 'advocate for change.'

The same problems remain as when hired: her legal education in Australia lacked foundational knowledge of U.S. and California legal systems, especially the values. Great she was admitted to the California Bar to practice law, but not enough. Experience in Federal Prosecutor's Office and Australian Crime Commission and U.S. volunteer work were brief and adversarial. None of it relates to public education. What did they expect her to do in a local school district - prosecute elementary children? Palo Alto Online resume link Web Link

Her resume is questionable. An LLB degree from an Australian University is not equivalent to a J.D. degree from a U.S. University or Law School. The LLB is a Bachelor's degree. The J.D. degree in the U.S. is a Master's degree requiring 3 additional years of study, a year longer than most American Master's degrees require. It's 7 years of higher education earned for successful completion of academic requirements. Earned for doing the work. It is offensive to imply you earned a Master's degree when you did not. There is no "University of Berkeley." She is a "licensed mediator" - where?

It is easy to claim a General Counsel reduced legal fees when they did not. You do this by not working on problems so fees never look high in any single month. You don't "win" by knowing your job, you "win" by forcing everyone else to know your job and to pay thousands in legal fees to explain it to you. Delay, then attack others and accuse them of the delays and of causing the problems you created.

Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 7, 2022 at 7:46 am

Samuel L. is a registered user.

@Meadow - Sounds like you believe the real issue was the board should never have hired her. So, the board puts an unqualified person in the position and let's them flounder for a few years before firing her.

Would that be an acceptable way to hire any employee?

The board hired an in-house attorney to deflect the attention to legal costs in the district. Did legal costs actually decrease? I have no idea.

Does the board still give monthly reports on legal fees as they did in the past? No.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2022 at 8:49 am

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

@Medow: So it is Ms. Vishakan's fault that the board hired her even though she was unqualified? What does that tell you about the board and HR at 25 Churchill?

Is it possible that any decent lawyer would never, in their right mind, represent a district so vulnerable to litigation on so many fronts? Or is it possible that decent lawyers are cognizant of the rot at 25 Churchill and rightfully choose better employment opportunities? Or maybe the folks in HR at 25 Churchill lack the competence or motivation to perform proper due diligence before hiring.

Similar questions come up with the hiring of site principals. In 27 years at my site, I worked for more than a dozen principals. Quite often these folks were woefully unprepared for the job, and in some cases didn't even do the job. Retention is not based on parent, student, or teacher satisfaction, but on fealty to 25 Churchill. You can be a terrible site leader, but if you kowtow to Austin and the Board that's all that is really needed. If you think this Board and the leadership at 25 Churchill want "what is best for kids", you've been reading too many of Austin's silly newsletters.

Posted by Just Another Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 7, 2022 at 9:07 am

Just Another Parent is a registered user.

The breaking news headline we need to see is "School Board Lets Don Austin Go, No Mystery"

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 7, 2022 at 11:57 pm

Meadow is a registered user.

The Board should not have hired her to be General Counsel, or in this case, the Board should not have promoted her based on her performance in a PAUSD job that was legal, but largely administrative management. If that really was the resume submitted, which we don't know, it should not have passed an initial review, Likely there was Halo effect operating here, with the Superintendent and Board promoting someone they knew who is like them. Her PAUSD volunteer work was similar to that of many Board members before they are elected.

HR completed reference checks, all positive, but HR was not qualified to probe legal qualifications, only verify minimum requirements met, that she was a member of the California Bar. The Board member tossed out a softball question about concerns she did not have adequate preparation for the role. Austin gave a vague answer, and the Board member made a strangely rapid conclusion it was all great. It looked scripted. prepared in advance.

Lawyers and special education staff often believe they are experts far beyond their knowledge and abilities. They seem to convince themselves of delusions, propped up by legal wins and their control of the record Board's can see.

In PAUSD, it is common to see unprepared staff promoted internally into senior roles they do not fit. Legal and Special Education are the functions with the most disasters over past years because Superintendents do not understand them. Anyone who smiles and says they care is favored. Any incomplete, unscientific data presented is believed. We have not seen a Special Education budget in 3 years, but are told they succeeded.

Members of the public do notify the Board when candidate's qualifications are inadequate, but the truth is, it is close to impossible for the Board to veto hires. Boards dare not question the "experts." They have to rubber stamp the Superintendent's choice, and let it fail. I feel bad for Ms. Vishakan. It is sad, but it harmed a lot of people.

Posted by Ramona Fernando
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 9, 2022 at 7:56 pm

Ramona Fernando is a registered user.

Meadow, can you elaborate on your statement "Was the child dying? Put them in Gunn High School."

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 10, 2022 at 1:08 am

Meadow is a registered user.

@Ramona Fernando - Special Education's goal in the Palo Alto Promise is to have services so ill children can attend district schools. What really happened is forcing students who are cutting their wrists at school and attempting suicide to attend Gunn and Palo Alto High School, claiming they now have the same services as Emergency Mental Health Programs, Residential Schools, Hospitals.

None of the mental health budget increases went to high schools. Wellness Centers were added in 2016. Therapeutic Classrooms existed for years. Parents are told classes are co-taught all day with a mental health therapist, but only 1 class is. It is a common lie for Special Education to say a therapist co-teaches all day. They're in the building or an attached office doing mental health counseling. They cannot be teaching and counseling.

Mental Health budgets increased, but not where people think. Mental Health includes salaries of a high level administrators, bus driver benefits, .1 of the Superintendent's salary and the IT person. High schools WOW workers are not therapists but do sports and activities. To make you think High School services increased, Middle School is now redefined as Secondary School. The district cancelled contracts with mental health agencies at elementary and middle schools to replace them with employees. District payroll increases. This will only start this school year, it is not done yet.

Gunn High School receives more resources than Palo Alto High, has more Special Education classes and vocational classes. Families think graduation requires meeting UC standards, but Board Policies lowered the standard to "Alternate" so that lower level therapeutic and vocational classes and California State standards are substituted. Special Ed can forcibly graduate kids in medical schools. Any signed Transition Plan with vocational or life skills (combing your hair) can be substituted.

That is what District's attorneys achieved.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2022 at 7:26 am

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

At one middle school during the opening days the of the 2021-22 school year, teachers took students on a required tour of the school to emphasize the variety of services offered. One prominent stop was the new "Wellness Center". The new center did not open or was not staffed until April of 2022! No matter, it served as a wonderful showpiece. In addition, counselors have been cut from three to two starting in 2022. The three counselors were "encouraged" to go on the school's daily broadcast to tell students "how excited they were" to have their staffing cut by 1/3. It was odd and discomforting to say the least. The principal also made a habit of reminding his employees about how "overstaffed" the school was in 2021-22 (himself excluded).

Realize that "The Promise" is pure propaganda, and the District has no problem employing Orwellian tactics to project an image that does not exist because reality is too much to face, especially when you are eyeballing your next promotion, career move, or the clock.

Everything must be wine and roses. However, that is rarely the case, thus the lawsuits keep coming.

Try telling the truth. Maybe that would work. People, for the most part, are realistic and appreciate being dealt with in a forthright manner. The capital gained through honesty and respect outweighs any marginal gains resulting from sugar coated newsletters, overpromising, secrecy, and firing staff for no cause, amongst others. Go ahead 25 Churchill, just try it. You might be surprised.

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 11, 2022 at 2:35 am

Meadow is a registered user.

If you read the Freedom of Information Act requests, it is striking how immature and sensitive the Superintendent is to any perceived disagreement. He looks for something to use against a person. A Special Education teacher reports the difficulty of teacher cut backs and high work load is for teachers with children. The Superintendent wants to know if the teacher missed a Professional Development day before he responds to her (to an e-mail not sent to him). Missing a training session supports the teacher's point.

He attacks child care providers, saying he told them how to act when he did not conduct a Request for Proposal. He claims one didn't. Which probably means he should have done the thing correctly and put out a Request for Proposal and told families what he was doing, rather than his rush job and secrecy.

He attacks the President of the Teacher's Union because he does not like social media posts of other people, which he reads so obsessively he quotes them. He attacks her with his opinion of leadership. This is a Kindergarten teacher. He earns so much more money and has an office staff. It is lovely he feels the need to tell a Kindergarten teacher his office rules about owning what they write. Her response to him is so mature, ignoring his temper tantrum and providing him with the teacher's concerns. Mr. Immaturity claims teachers have no concerns because he sometimes goes to schools and teachers tell him what they think. Is it possible not every teacher can talk to him because they are teaching?

He attacks the City over Cubberley, teacher housing, admitting he does not know the history. That is right Superintendent, you don't. You don't know the work and sacrifice Palo Alto put into founding school child care and PAUSD's Cubberley history. Great you need to paint others negatively and nothing is your fault. [Portion removed.]

Posted by Anony Mouse
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 11, 2022 at 6:09 pm

Anony Mouse is a registered user.

@meadow: Is there a way for you to point to these documents in the Public Records Request archives at PAUSD? I looked and it's so difficult to find anything. I think the public would benefit for getting a flavor of the "real" communication that happens.

Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 11, 2022 at 6:16 pm

Samuel L. is a registered user.

@Anony Mouse - Don Austin and crew are the ones responsible for making it impossible to find anything via public records. However Komey and the board could have pushed back if they were actually interested in public involvement or transparency.

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 13, 2022 at 2:18 pm

Meadow is a registered user.

@Anony Mouse - PAUSD's Record Act Pages are hard to follow, and some material is repeated in multiple files. Here are some links and topics to start. More to follow.

Topic - City of Palo Alto Relations, Cubbereley, Kids Choice PACCC and Day Care,
Superintendent's greatness as a leader who is always positive

California Public Records Act Materials
Request 91227

Page 54

Budget, Housing, Day Care, Some Unfortunate (and inaccurate) information about belief there is $15 million overlapping mental health support (includes non mental health items, same expense duplicated in old and new budgets...)
Web Link

Superintendent, Executive Cabinet, Board communications March and April 2022
PRA_91227_Apr2022_SuptBoard_Part2of2_Redacted.pdfWeb Link
April 2022, Part 2 0f 2

Topic: Page 167 -170 Special Education Teachers Overworked
March, 2022, Part 1 of 2

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 13, 2022 at 2:55 pm

Meadow is a registered user.

I see PAUSD's web site did not provide links for all the pages, sometimes only pdf names, so the above post might be difficult to use to locate material.

Here is a more streamlined version of how to find the records:

Start with Public Record Request 91227. There are multiple files related to:
Budget, Housing, Day Care, Superintendent evaluation, Palo Alto City Relations, Housing

To reach it go to:
California Public Records Act Materials at
Web Link
Click "Disclosed Public Archives"

Choose 2021-22 Files
Choose Request 91227

Read files from March and April, 2022

Posted by Meadow
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 15, 2022 at 1:57 am

Meadow is a registered user.

You can find the Superintendent's wildly inappropriate attack to teacher Ms. Baldwin on page 77. Web Link

He has collected her social media posts, showing he has too much free time or is overly sensitive, but it felt like stalking.

Ms. Baldwin's much more mature response begins on Page 82. She notes the District's diverted discussions at meetings away from teacher concerns, or the meetings were cancelled. She includes copies of the teacher's concerns, which shows extensive work to document and compile.

The Superintendent attacks her leadership, not seeming to realize there is a difference between his privileged position as a highly paid administrator with a building full of Administrators, support staff, and offices. She is a TEACHER and only a part time elected president of teacher's organization. The Superintendent earns so much more, his behavior borders on abusive. Remarks like "We have been patient" and references that unnamed parent groups agree with him are creepy. It is a passive-aggresive way of self praising his own "leadership" by attacking hers.

He does not seem to understand that the issues the teachers raise, such as fewer Special Education teachers doing more work, pressure to implement new curriculum with little time, and requirements to attend multiple IEP are a result of changes the district made, and are all what would be expected to happen. Fewer teachers, classrooms for disabled students replaced by Learning Centers where teachers now center managers who only get to check in with students and supervise aides (if they are really present.) Multiple IEP meetings are the result of the district's use of Special Education law firms, not families. Families are easy to blame victims of attorneys. There is such an irony here.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Aug 15, 2022 at 2:17 pm

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

Dear Meadow,

Thank you for the link. Austin's reply is typical for him. He is so disingenuous, and his attitude has completely taken hold at 25 Churchill. I cannot recall him ever coming to our site specifically to solicit teacher feedback in any meaningful way. Sure, he has his select staff who are in his court at any given site, but they do not dare speak their minds. In my time under his "leadership" he never held a forum with staff in attempt to understand our concerns. He speaks of his student committee quite often as well, but his conclusions from those so-called interactions always backed his policies. One time he concluded from his hand picked students that they did not care about teachers, just about an aligned curriculum. Of course that would support his push for cookie cutter teaching. Who these students were/are, and how they were selected is a mystery.

When surveys are completed that clearly show poor performance on the administrative end, he dismisses the numbers with silly statements like, "No more Zoom meetings", or these numbers "mirror national trends". Then he concludes with sappy statements like "Let's build each other up", or "Life is beautiful". Never does he attempt to address underlying issues in any meaningful way either because he does not know how to, or he does not want to take any responsibility. Doing so could tarnish his future aspirations. "Ambassador of Hope", really? How about "Platform of Lies" instead. His methods remind me of certain world leaders I will not mention. Suffice it to say things did not normally end well for those folks once the general public opened their eyes.

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