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Ricardo Soto’s Career Spans Education, Law, Politics and Social Services

BY MARK LARSON

When Ricardo Soto graduated from law school at the University of Wisconsin, he began a law career that has carried a strong theme throughout: helping people in need.

Just out of school in 1993, Soto won a fellowship from the Skadden Fellowship Foundation which enabled him to pursue public interest work at the Oceanside office of California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. He spent three and a half years at the nonprofit legal and political advocacy group that works in the interests of migrant farm workers.

Advancing his career in 1997, he started an eight-year stint as an in-house attorney with the San Diego Unified School District, in the niche of special education.

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These days, Soto, 41, is a school district attorney at the law firm Best, Best & Krieger LLC in San Diego. Clients include school districts in San Diego, Imperial, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, and a few in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Soto specializes in the legal framework of providing various courses. And doing that has a lot of challenges.

“I try to help school districts with their school accountability programs, so they can measure the academic achievement of students,” he said. “That helps them receive more resources.”

And that means dealing with a lot of different parties in a school district, ranging from school boards to state legislators to teachers’ unions, among others.

“I have to make sure all the pieces fit together, and I try to help school districts understand the implications of their decisions,” he said.


Raising Students’ Achievements

Soto is known for the thoroughness of his work for public schools, and as someone who enjoys the task of giving kids a better chance to learn.

“The rewarding part of the work is helping school districts implement quality programs that have some promise for increasing students’ achievements,” he said. “Education is without a doubt a critical part of a child’s life.”

Beyond that, he sees a strong education system as an essential building block of the economy.

“Without a well-educated work force, it undermines our prosperity,” he said.

The work of the Chicago native led to a state appointment two years ago.

In August 2005, when then-San Diego schools chief Alan Bersin was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Secretary of Education, Soto was Bersin’s choice to serve as his assistant and legal counsel. The pair served in Sacramento through February 2007.

Leslie Fausset worked with Soto from 2002 to 2004 when she was deputy superintendent at San Diego Unified School District. Fausset, who has since moved on to her current post as superintendent at Solana Beach School District, remembers him well.

“I have always found him to be a consummate professional,” she said. “He’s thorough, deliberate and always puts kids first.”

Fausset recalls Soto providing a legal opinion to the San Diego school district on the placement of a special education student. He argued for specified services for the child that had special needs.

Fausset is convinced Soto’s testimony before the California State Board of Education helped make the placement happen.

“Not only was it legally compelling,” said Fausset, “but it was convincing given the sensitive nature of the circumstances.”

Due to confidentiality requirements, Fausset declined to give more specifics of the case.

“I dealt with him on hundreds of other issues,” she said. “He takes the time to listen. I think that’s why his advice is so valuable.”

Fausset also cites Soto’s typical thorough research on legal issues facing the school district.

“It’s a very critical area,” she added. “We have a number of legal needs. Frankly, we live in a litigious society.”

And good legal advice, she said, is critical to avoiding the expensive traps that can come from lawsuits.


Sharing The Workload

Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, who now heads the city of San Diego’s ethics and integrity unit, was formerly general counsel for San Diego Unified School District. While she was Soto’s boss, he worked shoulder to shoulder with her to get things done.

When she started the job in 1998, she was stunned to find out that attorneys working for the district had no online legal research service. Instead, lawyers there had to travel to a law library to do their research.

“I’d been using those services everywhere I went,” she said. It turned out that Soto had been planning a way to get a legal research service budgeted, said SawyerKnoll, “to bring the office into the 20th century.”

“Ricardo came to me, and he had it all laid out; pricing on different services and a plan I could use to deal with it.”

She saw Soto as a colleague “whose eyes and ears were always open at a number of levels.”

Beyond that, he was more than happy to share what he knew. When SawyerKnoll first took the job at the school district, she admittedly didn’t know much about legal issues facing education.

Soto helped her learn the ropes.

“I found his advice to be very, very helpful,” she said. “He made me look good.”


Mark Larson is a freelance writer for the San Diego Business Journal.

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