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June 25, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, June 25, 2004

New faction in Neal school struggle? New faction in Neal school struggle? (June 25, 2004)

Attorney representing unnamed families demands answers

by Teresa C. Brown

Two school board members said they felt threatened by a Pleasanton attorney's demand they reconsider legal actions involving developers, at the school board meeting Tuesday night.

"I take what Richard Wood said as a threat," said Trustee Pat Kernan after attorney Wood read a prepared statement saying funds were being wasted by district lawsuits.

Wood spoke during the public comment period, stating he had "been retained by several families and taxpayers who live in Pleasanton who are very concerned about the litigation being pursued by the district."

Signature Properties brought a lawsuit against the school district to clarify its obligations to build Neal Elementary School, which is proposed for a Vineyard Avenue site situated near Ruby Hill. In April, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw ruled against the district on a technicality. He said the agreement between PUSD and the developers was unenforceable because it failed to reference State Education Code Section 17406.

The district filed an appeal on Sabraw's ruling, plus filed a fraud and deceit complaint against Signature executives Jim Ghielmetti and Jim McKeehan.

Wood told the trustees Tuesday that it appeared the district had outside representation in crafting the agreement between PUSD and the developers and that it was their attorney's responsibility to make sure the district had a clearly enforceable position.

"Given the recent ruling by Judge Ronald Sabraw that the contract was illegal for failing to follow the rules that apply to districts, it appears your lawyers failed in this responsibility," Wood said in the statement.

"It is clear that the district is losing in the litigation," he continued. "You need to analyze the worst case scenario. Assuming that you lose, what will it cost you to try all issues to the end, including appeals and malicious prosecution claims."

Admonishing the trustees for wasting taxpayer money, he asked, "Would you continue fighting if you had to spend your own money?"

Wood asked the trustees where the money will come from and what programs will be affected because of the litigation expense. He also questioned why the district does not use monies from the sale of the Sycamore property site - about $7 million - to build the school.

Wood concluded by telling the trustees that he would leave a copy of his statement with them and asked that district staff respond to his questions as soon as possible.

Although not directly responding to Wood, who left the board meeting immediately following the reading of his statement, Kernan and fellow trustee Steve Pulido, both practicing attorneys, said they felt Wood's statement was a threat.

"I would like to direct the staff not to do anything with what was given you," Kernan said. He added that he wanted the trustees to review the statement at the next closed session.

"I'd like to know who his clients are," Kernan said.

In Wood's statement, he did not disclose whom he was representing.

"I, too, know Mr. Wood as a fellow attorney," Pulido said. "If you come before the board and represent clients, I want to know who they are." Echoing Kernan, he said, "I take it as a threat, as Mr. Kernan said."

Pulido also noted that Wood was formerly associated with Jim McKeehan, Signature's vice president. In the early to mid-1970s, McKeehan and Signature's current attorney, Steven Bernard, had a law firm in Fremont and Wood was associated with that firm, Pulido said.

In his statement, Wood acknowledged that he knew Signature executives McKeehan and Ghielmetti about 15 years ago, but did not elaborate on that association.

At press time, Wood was unavailable for comment.

Also during the meeting, the district presented videotaped excerpts from the televised PUSD board meeting of June 5, 2001, and the City Council meeting of Oct. 1, 2001, discussing the agreement between Signature and PUSD. In the recordings, a $8.5 million capped price tag for Neal school was discussed.

PUSD Superintendent John Casey told the trustees that anyone in the community may view the tapes at either the school district office, 4665 Bernal Ave., or at CTV's office, 4663 Bernal Ave., Suite B.

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