California school board’s legal fees rose 377% since conservatives took control in 2022

If there’s a clear winner in the ongoing culture war clashes involving Temecula’s school board, it’s probably the lawyers.

Since a conservative majority took office in December, legal costs directly associated with the Temecula Valley Unified School District board have skyrocketed 377% — from roughly $17,000 in 2022 to more than $81,000 this year, according to information provided by the school district.

Holding three of five board seats, the conservative bloc — Danny Gonzalez, Joseph Komrosky and Jen Wiersma — have pursued a number of divisive policies, including a ban on the teaching of critical race theory that’s the subject of a lawsuit against the district.

The district’s legal representation has drastically changed since the majority took over. In January, the board voted 3-2 — with Barclay and Schwartz opposed — to hire special legal counsel to advise board members, with the majority citing a lack of trust in the district’s existing legal team.

As of Oct. 31, the special counsel of Epstein Becker & Green has been paid $39,358, district records show. Another firm, Orbach Huff & Henderson, has received $41,911 as of the end of October.

Wiersma defended the legal spending.

“Challenging the status quo with standards of accountability has resulted in union members and community activists filing frivolous lawsuits and complaints in retaliation,” she said via email.

“The increased need for counsel has been essential for thwarting these repeated attacks and developing new policy,” Wiersma added.

Gonzalez and Komrosky did not respond to requests for comment.

Board member Allison Barclay, who with board colleague Steven Schwartz is frequently at odds with the conservative majority, described the district’s legal costs as “insane” during a recent board meeting.

In a telephone interview, she lamented how much money the district is spending on lawyers.

The board rarely consulted attorneys before Gonzalez, Komrosky and Wiersma, took office, said Barclay, who has been on the board since 2021.

“But in the climate that we’re in now where our new board members are trying to push the envelope on every issue, it does get sticky,” Barclay said. “And so all of us are consulting attorneys more often than we ever would have.”

With the help of a local Christian conservative political action committee, Gonzalez, Komrosky and Wiersma were elected one year ago on a platform of promoting parents’ rights and ridding the district of what they said was inappropriate sexual material and political indoctrination.

Since then, the board has made national headlines not only with the critical race theory ban, but its initial refusal to adopt a social studies curriculum with supplemental material that mentioned LGBTQ civil rights icon Harvey Milk.

The majority also enacted a policy requiring parents to be told if their child identifies as transgender. The bloc adopted a flag display policy viewed by critics as a way to censor LGBTQ pride flags. And members of the majority have talked about adopting new textbook guidelines to weed out what they consider to be pornography but that critics contend could censor award-winning literature.

The majority’s detractors fear Gonzalez, Komrosky and Wiersma are trying to dismantle public education, threaten LGBTQ students and their families and impose a Christian nationalist agenda. Critics also say the conservative bloc wastes taxpayer dollars on culture war issues that have nothing to do with the nuts-and-bolts of running a school district.

Gonzalez, Komrosky and Wiersma are the focus of a recall campaign, which has until Dec. 8 to get enough signatures to qualify a recall of one, two or all three for the March 2024 ballot.

It’s not clear how the money paid to law firms was spent.

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