More money for lawyers?

School districts consider countywide alliance
By: DAVID FRIED
North County Times
February 9, 2005

Local education officials have proposed forming a countywide alliance that
would help school districts defend themselves in some special-education
battles that can cost districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees
and special services.

The alliance, similar to one Orange County school districts formed last fall,
would review special-education disputes between districts and parents and
help cover legal costs in cases that could set a precedent for what is
required of school districts.

Joe Schwartzberg proposed the idea and serves as director of the
North Coastal Consortium for Special Education, which represents
14 local districts.

He said districts usually settle special-education lawsuits because they're
too costly to fight, even when the district has a strong case.

"We're not trying to create a war chest," Schwartzberg said, adding that
most legal disputes would still be the responsibility of individual districts.
"This is a very principled approach to trying to make more informed
decisions."

Under Schwartzberg's proposal, districts in the county would contribute 50
cents for each student in their schools, which he estimates would give the
alliance $222,500 to work with annually. Along with helping offset legal
costs, the money could be used for training and other programs in cases
where rulings came in against the districts.

Although joining the coalition would require a formal vote by each of the
county's 42 school boards, Schwartzberg said more than half of the districts
have already expressed their interest.

Some parents, special education attorneys and advocates may not take
kindly to the idea, however.

Michael Cochrane, an attorney who has handled several
special-education complaints against school districts in the county,
said parents may feel that the districts are trying to gang up against
them.

"My concern is that this portends a more aggressive approach by
school districts where they'll want to take everything to a hearing,"
Cochrane said, adding that the possibility of a protracted legal
battle could discourage parents from fighting for their children's
education.

But Barbara Groth, a trustee of the San Dieguito Union High School
District,
discounts the notion that an alliance would amount to ganging up
on parents.

"This is 42 districts trying not to duplicate labor," Groth said. "Parents
should be advocating for their child. But parents aren't responsible for
every child's welfare in our district, and board members are and the
administration is."

Schwartzberg estimated that legal fees for special education disputes can
cost a district up to $100,000 for each case, and even more if they lose and
are required to pay attorneys' fees for the parents suing the district.

In about 90 percent of cases, anticipated legal costs often push districts to
settle with parents, even when they believe they have followed the letter of
the law, which requires them to provide a "free and appropriate education"
to special education students, Schwartzberg said.

Cases arise when parents disagree with districts over what is appropriate
for their child. Parent demands can range from special counseling to paying
for treatment in expensive residential facilities and covering families' travel
expenses.

Giving into those demands can set a dangerous precedent as well, school
officials say.

"Sometimes you just can't settle," Groth said. "Because it establishes an
atmosphere where, if the district gets a reputation for settling easily, then it
kind of sets itself up to have it happen more frequently, and that's not a
good use of tax dollars.

Details of each district's settlement agreements are kept confidential.

But Cochrane said he believes school districts only settle when
they believe they can't win a case and willingly jump into legal
battles when they believe they're right, no matter the expense.

"Because, in my experience, putting a parent in his or her place is
much more important than money for a school district," Cochrane
said.
"...Putting a parent in his or her place is
much more important than money for a
school district."
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