North Coastal Consortium for Special
|More money for
School districts consider
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
Joe Schwartzberg proposed
the idea and serves as director
of the North Coastal
Consortium for Special
Education, which represents 14
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
"Because, in my experience,
putting a parent in his or her
place is much more important
than money for a school
district," Cochrane said.
paragraph 18, line 27 and contd. on next page
"Mr. Shinoff's client, NCCSE Director
Schwartzberg, was well aware of the fraud. He
had funded the lawyers who appeared in the due
process hearings that Mr. Shinoff denied ever
occurred. And he monitored our litigation against
"Thus, Mr. Gill and Mr. Shinoff and NCCSE
knowingly withheld documents from the court in
USDC 00/CV/2475 IEG that would have resolved
the exhaustion issue 5 years ago."