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 Thursday, Aug. 4.
The vote was 4-0, with board member Jesse Ladomirak absent, President Ken Dauber told the Weekly in a text. He declined to provide further information about the board’s reasoning for dismissing her.
Vishakan was hired as the Palo Alto Unified School District’s first-ever general counsel in December 2018. Vishakan’s responsibilities included providing legal guidance on public records and meetings laws, special education law, Title IX compliance and board governance, among other areas.
At the time, Vishakan – who previously worked as the district’s compliance manager – was unanimously approved by the board, which had decided to hire an in-house lawyer in an attempt to improve legal compliance and reduce costs.
In a statement, Vishakahn said that she has “been a patient but persistent advocate for reform” whose goal has been to make the district’s schools safe places for all students.
“Sometimes advocating for change does not make everyone equally happy,” Vishakan said. “I’m proud where I’ve been able to inspire change, even if there is work left to do. I wish the best to the next person in my role and hope they will continue to be an advocate for change.”
The general counsel position reports directly to the board but has a dotted line to the superintendent.
The board plans to hire a new general counsel, Dauber said, adding that he expects the board will discuss the role at an upcoming regular public meeting, potentially the first one of the new school year, which is set for Aug. 23.
In June 2020, the school board approved an employment contract with Vishakan that ran through June 30, 2022. Dauber did not answer a question from the Weekly about whether that agreement had been extended.
The contract lists eight types of termination that can occur. Dauber said the board took action on Thursday “under a provision of the contract that provided for termination without cause” but did not say which specific provision the board used.
Vishakan’s contract also calls for the board to provide her with a written performance evaluation by June 30 of each year. If her performance is unsatisfactory, the board is supposed to prepare a remediation plan, under which Vishakan would have 90 days to remedy her performance.
At a May 24, 2022 meeting, the board met in closed session to consider the performance evaluations of seven high-ranking district employees. When the board reconvened into open session, Dauber announced a list of six employees who had received satisfactory evaluations. Vishakan was the only one not included.
When asked what the result of her evaluation was, Dauber said on Thursday that the board didn’t report it this year and that he “can’t comment on communications around personnel matters discussed in closed session.”
The remaining four board members – Todd Collins, Shounak Dharap, Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza and Ladomirak – all declined requests to discuss why the board terminated Vishakan’s employment. DiBrienza referred questions to Dauber; Collins said personnel and closed session matters are “both not permitted to be discussed”; and Ladomirak said she wasn’t at the meeting because she was on vacation and suggested reaching out to a different board member.
Dharap – an attorney, himself, who supported hiring an in-house counsel during his 2018 campaign for the board – said he couldn’t speak to personnel issues but added that “I continue to believe that the position of general counsel is critical for the protection (of) the district, its employees and students. Termination of employment does not mean elimination of a position.”
The only item on Thursday’s special board meeting was a closed session to discuss “employee discipline/dismissal/release.” According to Dauber, the meeting agenda was posted before 4 pm on Wednesday. The state’s public meetings law requires that agendas for regularly scheduled meetings be posted 72 hours ahead of time, but only 24 hours notice is required for special meetings. There was no Zoom access or Youtube livestream provided for Thursday’s meeting.