A new law firm could soon be representing Riverside Elementary School District 96. The district may replace its long time law firm of Scariano, Himes and Petrarca in the wake of the death of partner Tony Scariano and concerns about how the firm handled issues related to the departure of teacher at Ames School last year. Questions have been raised about the relationship between partner Justino Petrarca and Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi.
The District 96 school board is interviewing two new law firms and will consider those firms as well as Scariano, Himes and Petrarca. School board President Mary Ellen Meindl announced to search at the board’s meeting Feb. 19. Two members of the school board will meet with each of the new contenders in March, and the board plans to choose a firm at its April meeting.
In addition to Scariano, Himes and Petrarca, the board is considering Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, which it retained last month to review procedures relating to reporting suspected cases of abuse of children, and the firm of Robbins Schwartz.
Both Hodges Loizzi and Robbins Schwartz have extensive practices in education law and represent a large number of school districts, as does Scariano, Himes and Petrarca.
The death of Scariano in December prompted the board to reopen a review of its legal services provider, a process that began in 2011 when the board became aware of concerns about Scariano’s health, according to Meindl. Scariano was a nationally prominent education lawyer.
“We’re going to continue the process,” Meindl said. “We had paused it for a while because we were working on other things. We had actually started this conversation in June of ’11 because we knew Tony’s health was not good.”
Scariano, Himes and Petrarca has represented District 96 for about 20 years and was hired during former Superintendent David Bonnette’s first year at the helm of District 96.
Scariano was the partner who focused on District 96.
“He was our key contact,” Meindl said.
But Petrarca advised the board in its last teacher contract negotiations and was active in 2012 in representing the district. In 2012, Petrarca wrote letters to Sue Corrigan and Stephen Battersby advising them that it was illegal to distribute a police report detailing the Riverside Police Department’s investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse.
In September 2012, Petrarca sat at the board table and interrupted Corrigan when she tried to speak during the public comment period at the Sept. 18, 2012 school board meeting.
In December 2011, Petrarca accompanied Lieggi to the Riverside police station where he helped her file a public records request for the police report. They also filed a request to see who had filed requests to see the police report.
“I have concerns that Mr. Petrarca went to the police station with Colleen Lieggi, and it makes me question whether or not he had the board’s best interests in mind, because that’s who he works for,” Meindl said.
Meindl also said that she did not know that Scariano, Himes and Petrarca had represented Lieggi in a personal matter earlier in 2011 until the Landmark reported that fact on Feb. 20.
Meindl said she has not asked Petrarca about whether he has or had a personal relationship with Lieggi.
“No, I haven’t talked to him about that,” Meindl said. “What’s enough for me is the fact that he went to the police station. That raises concerns.”
Meindl suggested that the board might be looking for an attorney and a firm with a lighter touch than Scariano, who could be aggressive at times.
Meindl said that she especially wants to meet with each law firm’s special education attorneys.
“It will be important to meet the special ed person, because we want to make sure that they are a right fit for what we believe is important,” Meindl said. “Tony sometimes could be a bull in a china shop. Sometimes that’s not what needed, especially when we’re dealing with special ed parents and their concerns, which are important to us.”
Meindl and Lisa Gaynor will meet with Robbins Schwartz, while Meindl and David Kodama will meet with Hodges Loizzi. Last year Kodama and Meindl met with Robbins Schwartz and Gaynor and Meindl with Hodges Loizzi.
They will report back to the full board, which plans to pick a law firm at its meeting on April 16.
This story has been altered to reflect that Susan Corrigan did not name or refer to any specific actions of any school district employees when she was interrupted by Justino Petrarca at the Sept. 18, 2012 board meeting. She read from a prepared statement asking the board to establish an ethics policy.