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Board, students look to future plans following dismissal of district lawyer

Photo by Tiffany He

After dismissing its previous general counsel “without cause” during its Aug. 4 closed session meeting, the board of education is in the process of hiring a new person for this position.

Board member Jesse Ladomirak said Komey Vishakan, hired in 2020, was the district’s first in-house attorney who provided legal assistance to the Board and Superintendent.

“Prior to bringing the general counsel role in-house as an employee, the district had tons of lawyers providing advice in different areas, but there (had) never been the role of general counsel,” Ladomirak said. 

Ladomirak said has heard community concerns about about Vishakan’s termination, and while she said she understands the pushback, for privacy reasons the Board can’t why employees are dismissed.

“We see (frustration) in Palo Alto Online comments — frustrated that the district is stonewalling, but there are legal protections that are in place for both victims and alleged perpetrators, ” Ladomirak said. “We can’t talk about it. I get that it feels like there’s some conspiracy, but 99% of the time, decisions are made for mundane reasons that really aren’t all that exciting.”

But for Paly Student Board Representative Johannah Seah, the lack of transparency about this decision and loss of Vishakan, who Seah said was a valuable asset, is devastating.

“I thought, why are they letting go of this person who’s worked really hard, at least from my perspective, to serve students?” Seah said. “It’s possible she could have done something else, but because the reason wasn’t publicized, I could jump to my conclusions.”

Although Vishakan worked mostly for the district, students could meet with her as well. The 2020-2021 Vice President of Gunn’s Know Your Nine club and 2021 graduate Isabella Pistaferri said she and other students worked with Vishakan to create stronger Title IX resources within PAUSD.

“She basically took it upon herself to start a Title IX review committee in order to directly address the issues that we were bringing up at the board meetings and to create a direct link between students and administrators,” Pistaferri said.

Seah, who also worked with Vishakan, said Vishakan was an outlet for students’ Title IX concerns. 

“A lot of Title IX information is very legalistic that can be really hard to understand,” Seah said. “So, we were interested in making the Title IX system more accessible. We would talk to her about our concerns, and she would tell us a little bit more about her experience working as the general counsel.”

At the Board’s Aug. 23 meeting, members discussed hiring a new general counsel, and Ladomirak said one factor they are considering is whether to hire a PAUSD employee or an attorney from an outside law firm.

“In my prior life, I worked as an attorney for a public agency group, and (being) part of a larger law firm had access to labor attorneys and real estate attorneys and all the other stuff that would come up beyond just the generalist stuff,” Ladomirak said. “It’s also possible to do with an employee, and so I think we’re trying to figure out what’s going to be the most effective way to serve this role for our district.”

Seah said she supports an employee-hire because she thinks it would be more effective in maintaining the student-district connection.

“If they were hired into the district, I (would) have a hard time believing they’re going to be very available to student input or be very connected to students at all,” Seah said. “Even when you’re an employee, you’re still disconnected from students in some sense, but because you’re part of the PAUSD district, you understand who you’re working with a bit more.”

However, Pistaferri said her biggest concern with a new counsel is their knowledge of Title IX regulations.

“Hopefully, the (new) general counsel puts Title IX issues at the forefront of what they want to deal with in school and keeps that direct link between students and the school district with the Title IX review committee,” Pistaferri said. “I really want there to be actual change and student input, but advocacy is tiring. You can’t lean on students to do everything for you.”

Ladomirak said the hiring process is an ongoing conversation and the Board will keep Vishakan’s work in mind when choosing its new general counsel.

“We learned lots of things,” Ladomirak said. “We’re trying to use this moment of transition to make sure that when we do it again, it’s as effective as possible.”

Vishakan did not respond to an email request for an interview.

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