Records show RPS graduation shooting report cost district nearly $100k

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Posted at 6:33 PM, Feb 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-15 11:54:00-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- New documents obtained by CBS 6 through an open records request show how much Richmond Public Schools spent for the third-party investigation it commissioned into a deadly shooting outside of a graduation.

The final bill from law firm Sands Anderson for its investigation into the circumstances and security issues surrounding a June 2023 graduation day shooting totaled $88,646.

The cost was about four times the $22,000 RPS initially estimated it would have to pay.

"Sands Anderson provided the estimate, as did another firm, and the Board made the final decision on which partner to go with. Lawyers bill based on hours, and what was charged was ultimately reflective of the hours SA needed to complete the Board's assignment," RPS spokesperson Alyssa Schwenk said regarding the costs.

School board members CBS 6 spoke to Wednesday said they were unaware that the bill from Sands Anderson ended up significantly exceeding their expectations.

"As a board member, I received no updates that the cost would surpass the $25k estimate we were given, and I'm taken aback. I can't imagine going over budget by over $60k and not letting anyone know," said Kenya Gibson (3rd District) in a statement. "While it's true that we shouldn't have had to pay a dime for the public to get the full story, I'm thankful that the board procured this report because it ultimately led to this critical information being released."

Dr. Shonda Harris-Muhammed (6th District) said, "As a school board member, I have not received the final invoice for the scope of services."

According to invoices reviewed by CBS 6, about $8,000 of Sands Anderson's services went toward efforts to keep the report private and to assist in a lawsuit, filed in part by CBS 6 and the Richmond Times Dispatch, alleging the Richmond School Board violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to release it. Richmond Judge Reilly Marchant ultimately sided against the school board and forced the district to make the report public.

Sands Anderson charged RPS $2,550 for its investigator to come to court and testify in an effort to prevent the release of the report.

Thousands of dollars in other charges went toward reviewing "privilege issues" and "VFOIA issues" as well as coordinating with the school board's external attorney in preparation for the FOIA case.

The school board's internal legal counsel, Haney Phinyowattanachip PLLC, was also involved in reviewing the report and assisting in the FOIA case.

Though the charges on those invoices were not as cut-and-dry, information related to the report and FOIA lawsuit fell under the 'service description' for about $6,000 worth of services.

Of note, RPS redacted some of the information contained in the service descriptions, citing exemptions for attorney-client communication, personnel information, and identifiable student information.

As for the outside attorney, John Cafferky, who represented the school board to fight the release of the report in court, board members said those costs were covered by the district's insurance company, VACorp.

It's possible the district or its insurance company will also have to pay some of CBS 6 and Richmond Times Dispatch's legal fees in the FOIA case, but those negotiations are still underway.

Additionally, Sands Anderson's invoice revealed that the report was revised after it was first presented to the school board on November 6, 2023.

On November 22, Sands Anderson "received communications" from Superintendent Jason Kamras, "analyzed revisions to the report," and "drafted language for revision," according to the invoice.

Then, on November 27, the law firm "updated and finalized" the report and received a supplemental memo, which was a letter sent from Superintendent Kamras to Sands Anderson addressing discrepancies between his initial July 2023 incident report and the law firm's report.

At that point, school board members had already received the report at a meeting three weeks prior but were not allowed to take a copy home with them. And just one week prior, the board had taken a vote to not release the report.

District spokesperson Alyssa Schwenk said the only changes that were made to the report between November 6 and November 27 were the inclusion of Kamras' memo and a three-sentence note that indicated the memo was added to the report. Schwenk said both materials were released publicly.

"I was not aware revisions were made to the report after it was presented to the school board on November 6. As a school board member, I have no words to justify that action. I'm disappointed in Sands Anderson not notifying the entire school board of revisions made to the report," Harris-Muhammed said in a statement. "In addition, I would like to know who else knew of the revisions. I am aware of the one-page letter the Superintendent emailed to Sands Anderson but no other revisions."

Superintendent Kamras has repeatedly declined CBS 6's requests for an interview.

CBS 6 also reached out to School Board leadership, Chair Stephanie Rizzi and Vice Chair Liz Doerr, for this story and has not yet heard back.

The third-party investigation ultimately found that RPS staff allowed the slain student, Shawn Jackson who was homebound at the time, to attend graduation against its own policies, without conducting a threat assessment, and "without any consideration of safety concerns," despite having knowledge of threats to Jackson's life.

(Note: This article was updated 2/15 to reflect responses and clarifications from a Richmond Public Schools spokesperson regarding the costs of the report and the revisions that were made to it.)

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