|San Diego Education Report
Solana board member works for district’s law firm
Aug. 10, 2012
Art Palkowitz serves on the Solana Beach school board as a part-time job, but
his full-time job is working for one of the district’s outside law firms.
Palkowitz is paid more than $100,000 a year by Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz,
income that he is required by law to disclose on state forms and didn’t.
The disclosures are required so the public can monitor for potential conflicts such as a
school board member working for one of the district’s vendors.
In response to The Watchdog’s request for Palkowitz’s forms, he filed an amendment to
his 2011 disclosure to report the income. Palkowitz and district officials say they carefully
manage any potential conflict with his work for the firm, which has been paid $210,966
The Stutz firm says it works with no district contract. The firm has so far declined to
release information requested about the terms or details of its services. Each billing is
approved publicly by the board in an unitemized purchase order, and Palkowitz recuses
“Because Art does not do any work for our district, he has no financial gain for any work in
our district,” said Superintendent Nancy Lynch. “He really focuses on his role representing
our students and our community and there is no financial benefit of him serving in that
Board Vice President Rich Leib agreed, saying, “We don’t have a contract. We want to
approve every bill so we are very transparent.”
Palkowitz said he has been forthcoming about his employment with his four peers on the
board and district leadership. He said he exerts no spoken or unspoken pressure to his
colleagues to award work to his firm.
“I don’t think the community should be concerned because there is no conflict,” Palkowitz
said. “There is no financial interest to me.”
The state’s conflict of interest law, Government Code 1090, says school board
members “shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official
capacity” — or any contract made by the board itself, even if they sit out the decision.
The district says Palkowitz has no conflict because he has no financial gain from
payments to the firm, and because the district has no contract with the firm.
[Maura Larkins comment: But it has contracts with other law firms; avoiding a
written contract was apparently done to get around the letter of the law on
conflicts of interest.]
Palkowitz was elected to the school board in November 2004. From 2006 to 2010,
Palkowitz voted to award somewhere between $74,000 and $136,979 in district work to
the Stutz firm.
When Palkowitz took a job as an attorney with the law firm in March 2010, he began
recusing himself from school board votes to pay the legal bills for his new employer.
He does attend closed-door meetings in which school board members give direction to
their attorneys, including Palkowitz’s boss, Dan Shinoff.
Robert Fellmeth, founder and director of the University of San Diego’s Center for Public
Interest Law, said the state’s law is not limited to specific financial benefit from a school
board’s decision or, as he put it, the law “goes beyond getting a percentage or piece of
School board decisions on whether to pursue [such as the Ka.D. case] or settle
a case handled by the firm are contaminated because of Palkowitz’ employment,
“He is a legitimate client of the firm as a school board member. He very interestingly has
the attorney-client privilege operating in both directions,” Fellmeth said. “If I were in this
person’s shoes, I would probably not be working for someone that is a direct beneficiary
of the decisions of the public body for which I am a part.”
The Watchdog asked late last month how much money the firm has been paid to date in
comparison to other firms. District staff asked Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz to
handle The Watchdog’s request.
The district’s legal agreements for the 2012-2013 school year with five other law firms
range from $5,000 to $35,000 a year, according to district documents. The 2,800-student
elementary district has no general counsel and hires attorneys as needed on a project
basis, district officials said.
“We have actually used them less than probably we would have because they are a good
firm, but we wanted to make sure only used them in the tough cases given this tight
situation,” Lynch said.
On July 24, The Watchdog started requesting more detail about Stutz’s work for the
Firm Attorney Michelle Meek wrote in a letter Aug. 8, “The district objects to requests
for the billing documents which contain descriptions for work performed as invasive of the
attorney work product doctrine and the attorney client privilege.”
No other information about the firm’s work has been provided.
Leib, Palkowitz’ colleague on the school board, said he has felt no pressure to select his
colleague’s employer over other legal firms for district work.
“Art has always disclosed and we all knew that there was a potential conflict of interest
and we very carefully made sure that he never voted or discussed anything that had
anything to do with the law firm handling any cases,” said Leib, an attorney at a local
liquid waste recycling company. “As you know the law firm that works for us is probably the
best in this county that does stuff and Art has got a lot of integrity and I have valued his
counsel, because as an attorney he helps quite a bit in terms of giving some legal advice
on board matters which we often get.”
Palkowitz, who worked as an in-house legal counsel for San Diego Unified from
July 2000 to March 2010, said his failure to disclose his employment with Stutz on state-
mandated forms was an error he has now corrected.
Friday was the deadline for school board candidates to return paperwork for the
As of a week ago, Palkowitz had told The Watchdog he was undecided about running for
re-election. Friday, he did not return calls. The Registrar of Voters said he did not return
paperwork in time for the candidate deadline. When an incumbent doesn't file, the
deadline for others to file is extended. Candidates have until Wednesday.
Attorney Art Palkowitz
Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz law firm
On 3/12/09 Art Palkowitz listed
himself as Director of
NCWSFFA, and noted that he
also held positions in Solana
Beach School District as
Director of Finance/ School
< < <
"Art has always disclosed..."
says Rich Lieb, but the
documents reveal otherwise.
Why would Rich Lieb make this
false statement? Is he
constituents, or his
Leib is an attorney at a local
liquid waste recycling company.
Any law firm that gives that
“The district objects to
requests for the billing
documents which contain
descriptions for work
performed as invasive of the
attorney work product doctrine
and the attorney client
privilege” should be banned
from working for any public
--Barbara Stevens (see
The Ninth Circuit Court wondered why a school district (Solana Beach) would pay
Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz law firm $67,000 in order to avoid paying $6,000 or
$7,000 for a little autistic girl's education. (This money was not for babysitting; the little
girl made remarkable strides in socialization and academics. How much is that worth?)
One justice had the following discussion with Jack Sleeth. You can listen to the exchange
Solana Beach School District loses case--but lawyers collect
Ka.D., a minor v. Solana Beach School District
What do school board members get in return for channeling large amounts of tax dollars
to school attorneys? In this case, one of the board members, Art Palkowitz, got a job
at the law firm, Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, used by the school district. The board
voted to take the case all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, even though the
firm had lost in the District Court. One justice noted, "Nobody in their right economic
mind" would do this.
Justice: "I am curious. This whole dispute is about
counsel [attorney] fees, I assume.
"Nobody in their right economic mind would be
carrying this case to the Ninth Circuit that seems to
me to involve something like $67,000....
"What's really at stake here in terms of the lawsuit
itself is whether you should reimburse somewhere
between 6 and 7 thousand dollars [to the parents].
"For this amount of money you've gone through a
hearing before a hearing officer, a proceeding in the
District Court, and now you're appealing to the Ninth
"It seems to me, and I don't blame you necessarily, I
just want to be clear. This whole dispute is about
counsel fees, isn't it?"
Jack Sleeth: "No."
The decision said: "We agree with the ALJ’s determination that the District’s general
education class was an inappropriate education setting for the Student, and
therefore, the District’s offer substantively failed to provide a FAPE.
Update March 29, 2013: Ka.D.'s mother writes:
"Our [case] is still out there--after the denial by the US Supreme
Court they are fighting over fees owed to our attorney....while
racking up more fees for themselves..."