A Bad Start for the Oakland School Board 

As the board began to regain local control, the district involved itself in a messy and unnecessary legal battle.

For nearly six years, Oakland parents have yearned for the return of local control of their public schools. After all, the long-troubled school district didn't exactly prosper under state control. Then last spring, the state began handing over some responsibilities to the locally elected school board. At first, the move represented a sign of hope for parents who want a voice in their kids' education. But over the past several months, top school district officials have made a series of poor decisions that raise questions about whether the return of local control is actually in the best interest of Oakland schoolchildren.

The most recent example involves the expenditure of tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on an unnecessary, frivolous, and messy federal lawsuit against a small, respected Oakland law firm. The district, with the blessing of a majority of the school board during a closed-door meeting last month, filed the suit against the firm, Bryant and Brown, even though there is evidence it stemmed from a personal vendetta launched by the district's former top lawyer, Deborah Cooksey, against her onetime close friend, Meredith Brown. The suit, which Cooksey engineered, makes a series of over-the-top allegations against Brown and her firm, including the claim that it is guilty of "racketeering." However, as of Monday, the suit still contained no evidence to back up its claims, and school district officials are now refusing to comment on it.

Nonetheless, the district, with the okay of the school board, is plowing ahead with the lawsuit, and paying thousands in legal fees to a Walnut Creek firm to push the case in court, even though Cooksey has since resigned from the district. In addition, the agency must now spend even more money defending itself from a countersuit that Brown filed against Cooksey and the school district, alleging that Cooksey defamed her and her firm and launched a campaign to put her out of business. "We think Deborah Cooksey had an agenda, and she unleashed it on someone who she had been a friend, even a mentor to," said Vintage Foster, a spokesman for the Bryant and Brown law firm.

The lawsuit, which is based on Cooksey's investigation of Bryant and Brown and was pushed by her before she abruptly left the district earlier this month, alleges that Bryant and Brown is guilty of racketeering, fraud, and the "theft of public funds." Much of the lawsuit rests on Cooksey's allegation that the law firm purposely overbilled the district for about $51,000 in legal fees. The lawsuit also claims — again, based on Cooksey's allegations — that Bryant and Brown overcharged the district for $50,000 of work it did on a garbage contract and is guilty of "legal malpractice" in a case in which it represented the district, costing the public agency more than $600,000.

But the lawsuit and the district's own records, including Cooksey's report of her investigation into Bryant and Brown, appear to contain no evidence that the law firm intended to overbill the district or is guilty of anything remotely resembling racketeering, fraud, theft, and legal malpractice. In a face-to-face interview last week, Meredith Brown maintained that the overbilling was a simple mistake that occurred after her firm switched software programs. Brown said her accountant's own review concluded that her firm overbilled the district $39,000 and that she has already repaid that amount to the public agency.

So why is a cash-strapped school district spending tens of thousands of dollars on a lawsuit over what now amounts to a $12,000 billing dispute? Meredith Brown and her attorney, Zach Wasserman, of the prominent Oakland law firm Wendell, Rosen, Black, & Dean, believe it's based on personal animus that Cooksey harbors against her old friend. In her countersuit against the district, Brown claims that Cooksey's anger got so out of control that she falsely accused Brown and respected district facilities chief Tim White of having a romantic affair. In an interview, White said Cooksey made that false accusation to him directly last fall.

The roots of Cooksey's anger reach back to 2003, just before the district went bankrupt and was taken over by the state, Brown said. At the time, Superintendent Dennis Chaconas had transferred $17 million in interest from construction bonds to the district's general fund to avoid further cuts in employee salaries, Brown said. Chaconas had based his decision on a recommendation from the office of the district's general counsel, Roy Combs, which included his deputy, Deborah Cooksey. After Chaconas was fired and replaced by state Administrator Randy Ward, White asked Brown for a legal opinion on what Chaconas had done. Brown concluded that the fund transfer was probably illegal, because construction bonds, including the interest they generate, must be spent on facilities — not employee salaries.

Ward subsequently asked Brown to solicit the opinion of state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. In 2004, Lockyer's office concluded that Brown was right, so Ward transferred the $17 million back to the facilities fund. The move forced Ward to make across-the-board cuts, including salaries in the legal department. Cooksey soon resigned.

Cooksey's attorney, Louis Leone, who also represents the district in its case against Bryant and Brown and in the countersuit filed against the district, did not return a phone call seeking comment. Cooksey declined to comment. When asked why she left the district earlier this month, she replied "job dissatisfaction," and declined to elaborate. District spokesman Troy Flint also declined to comment. Former district counsel Combs did not return a phone call.

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