South Carolina school districts appear more interested in spending tax dollars fighting parents’ attempts to get accommodations for their special-needs children rather than providing focused instruction, according to research by Janet Frazier, a citizen reporter for The Nerve.
State school districts spent more than $33 million on legal fees, claims and settlements between FY 2002 and FY 2007, much of it related to challenges from parents who disagreed with school assessments on how to educate their special-needs children, according to Frazier’s research.
That’s particularly distressing given the financial straits South Carolina finds itself in. Last month, the state Budget and Control Board announced an across-the-board 5 percent cut that will cost schools approximately $100 million.
In September, the board chopped 4 percent, which will reduce money to school districts by $85.4 million. And those reductions come on the heels of a $131 million K-12 budget cut enacted in July.
Four school districts alone racked up more than $1 million apiece in attorneys fees between FY 2002 and FY 2007: Beaufort County, Charleston County, Horry County and Richland School District One.
During the six-year period, Beaufort spent more than $1.85 million on outside lawyers and has since rung up another $1.3 million in legal fees. In addition, Beaufort paid out $4.55 million in claims in FY 2007 alone.
Thanks to federal legislation, public schools have an obligation to provide “Free Appropriate Public Education,” which is defined as an educational program that is individualized to a specific child and designed to meet that child’s unique needs.
Essentially, what that means is that when it comes to children with disabilities, schools must provide students with an education, including specialized instruction and related services, that prepares them for further education, employment and independent living.
The combined legal fees of the four districts during the six years totaled $6.6 million, or 25 percent the all money spent on outside attorney fees by South Carolina school districts, according to information found on the S.C. Department of Education website.
Of the three remaining districts, Horry County School District spent more than $1.9 million on attorney’s fees between FY 2002 and FY 2007, Richland School District One spent more than $1.8 million and Charleston spent a little more than $1 million.
Charleston also paid out a little more than $1 million related to either claims or settlements during that period.
Much of the money paid by school district in legal fees went to three large Columbia law firms: Duff, White & Turner LLC, Childs & Halligan PA, and Tupper, Grimsley & Dean PA.
Interestingly, the South Carolina Teacher of the Year, named annually by the state Department of Education, is partly sponsored by both Duff, White & Turner and Childs & Halligan.