Silence fell over the public meeting room in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district’s headquarters as Craig Foster’s voice was transmitted through a laptop’s video chat software and broadcast with a nearby microphone.

Participating from afar, the local Board of Education member didn’t sound happy.

The school board on Wednesday was preparing to approve another $1.5-million open payment to Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, the law firm hired to defend the district in litigation over chemical testing and cleanup in Malibu.

And Foster, the governing body’s only Malibu resident, said he is deeply troubled by the expenses racked up by SMMUSD since the discovery of polychlorinated biphenyls at schools in the enclave city more than two years ago.

“It’s been difficult because I know I’m a clear minority of the board on this, and I try not to spend too much of the board’s time on something I don’t have the votes to influence,” he said. “Tonight, I’ve got to take a little more time. …

“My biggest concern is that I don’t know where it ends. We always have a good reason to say, ‘Well, we’re close,’ or ‘We’re getting closer.’ But we don’t know where it’s going to end. … It’s well past the point where we need to be looking very hard at finding a way to make this go away more aggressively.”

The district has allocated more than $10 million in consultants and legal fees since chemicals were found in the caulking at the Malibu High School campus a few years ago. Malibu activists filed a lawsuit against the district last year, and post-trial papers were recently submitted. A court decision could be handed down within the next few months.

Still, Foster said, the public deserves to hear a comprehensive update on the issue.

“My request here is that we take a pause and we have a formal discussion about this policy, these expenses, and options with regard to curtailing these expenses,” he said. “The public would be very grateful for some sort of public revisiting of this.”

Board president Laurie Lieberman said legal matters must be discussed in closed session and added that the district has had no choice but to defend itself in the lawsuit, through which Malibu parents are seeking the removal of PCBs from their schools. The district has repeatedly stated that it has followed guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“If you’re arguing that we should try to settle while we await that [court] decision, that’s something we have to discuss in closed session,” Lieberman told Foster. “The board was sued for decisions that were not only justifiable and health-protective; they were the right thing for students and staff in our district. … [The plaintiffs] cost the district a lot of money, make no mistake about that.”

Most of the $1.5-million allocation to Pillsbury had already been spent as of Wednesday, officials said. Jan Maez, the district’s chief financial officer, estimated that roughly $250,000 of the payment was for services that had not yet been performed. Board policies give district staff the authority to issue purchase orders, Maez said.

The board approved the payment to Pillsbury on a 4-2 vote, with Foster and Oscar de la Torre in dissent and Jose Escarce not present.

The vote came as the district announced that Chris King and Sylvia Rousseau will serve as interim co-superintendents as the search continues for Sandra Lyon’s long-term successor.

“I’m sure I will have many conversations with the new people coming in on this subject,” Maez said.

jeff@www.smdp.com