That you can’t fight city hall is a time-honored truism, but how much harder does it become when different city halls join forces to fight you? Parents in Orange County, California unfortunately are discovering just this fact as they advocate for services for their children with special needs. Since 2005, 28 school districts plus the Orange County Department of Education have formed an alliance, which among other functions, contributes financially to school districts engaged in legal battles against parents.
The Orange County Special Education Alliance was ostensibly formed to ally school districts in their ongoing campaign against parents. A single school district is a formidable opponent but fighting a coalition of districts that gives me a headache just to contemplate. Again lets remember they are not the victims of parents in the vast majority of cases.
But is the formation of such co-ops as the Orange County Special Education Alliance the answer to the problematic finances of funding special education? The alliance is governed by a 12-member Review Committee comprised of five school superintendents, three special education administrators, two attorneys in private practice representing school districts, one attorney from the Orange County Department of Education, and one “business official.” The official mission of the Alliance, per its web site (2), is “to address the need for a countywide system with a focus on special education, to provide staff development and training to school employees, to provide leadership in advocating for legislative and administrative change, to review decisions and rulings rendered by administrative agencies, and to assist districts in the funding of litigation and appeals of administrative and judicial decisions and rulings, where the outcome of the decision has countywide significance or precedent setting in its implications for all students.” And therein lies the rub. . . what parents are discovering is that the largest single item in the alliance’s annual budget is to provide funds to districts involved in litigation against parents. The alliance, which contributes to up to five lawsuits for member districts each year, has budgeted at least $75,000 for litigation this year. Parents in Orange County who are involved in litigation against their school districts may discover that there is an array of school districts opposing them and not just their home district.
Although critics have deemed the alliance a “slush fund to batter kids,” a member superintendent called it a “brotherhood.” The alliance defends its necessity by claiming they are being “clobbered” in litigation by parents, who view school districts as the “goose laying the golden egg.” Their actions, the alliance says, are protecting the educations of all students, not just special education students. Although some districts claim they concede services rather than engage in protracted legal battles, it is not always the case. Special education critics say that some school districts are so deeply entrenched against paying for services that they will spend far more on legal costs than the amount of the disputed service. And in Orange County, this cycle is particularly vicious. The amounts contributed by the alliance are almost pocket change compared to the costs of some of the big-ticket lawsuits districts are engaging in. Yet how much school districts are spending is hard to tell because some districts refuse to disclose the costs of their legal battles, even to their school boards. We do know that the Los Alamitos Unified School District spent $783,000 to prevent a Spanish-speaking family from videotaping an IEP meeting which would have helped the mother to better understand what was happening. The Capistrano Unified School District was forced to pay $117,000 of a family’s legal fees in addition to their own attorney’s bill of at least $238,000. The amount of services disputed for the child? Approximately $20,000. Another guardian engaged in litigation against the Garden Grove Unified School District estimates that she has spent in the past 5 years approximately $350,000; the district, which has refused to disclose its legal fees, presumably has spent more. The most recent skirmish was over $14,000 in disputed services. Orange Unified School District has been compelled to pay $153,000 for legal fees incurred by a family whom they sued; the district has not disclosed its own legal costs. One can only wonder if the outcomes of these protracted lawsuits can possibly justify their expense.
So why are school districts not disclosing their legal costs? According to a series of articles from the Voice of Orange County, one of the attorneys on the alliance’s review committee, who is with a firm that represents nine of the 28 member districts in the alliance, has advised the alliance that school districts don’t have to disclose their legal fees. This lack of transparency makes the alliance seem almost like a cabal. And it appears that parents aren’t the only ones who may be ignorant of the alliance’s activities; it turns out that school board members from member districts may also be in the dark. Board members from at least two of the member districts acknowledged they were unaware of the alliance. Additionally, there is apparently no written record in the meeting minutes that the school boards in Orange Unified or Garden Grove ever approved the lawsuits which cost their districts so dearly. Almost from its inception, there have been charges that the alliance has engaged in violations of the open meeting act, which the alliance has denied.
Engaging in exorbitant lawsuits against families seems to be a poor solution to the problem of containing costs in special education. As is, parents often feel extremely uneasy when going up against their school districts. But being paranoid doesn’t mean that school districts, particularly those in Orange County, aren’t out “to get them.” Fortunately, the alliance is the only one of its type in this country, according to advocates. Although a smaller alliance exists in San Diego, it is much less active. It is time for school districts to sharpen their negotiation skills and stop demonizing parents.