California School Districts spend $95.6 Million per year to fight Students with Disabilities (more or less)

No one knows what school districts spend to fight against their special education families… it is time to find out.

If you talk to a parent of a child with disabilities, they all have or know a story about someone fighting their school district.

Everyone dreads it.

There’s got to be a pretty good business working for schools and there sure is a good one fighting schools – a lot of lawyers will take your case for free.

But, how much do schools actually spend on lawyers, legal settlements, and legal fees.

Even though school budgets are public, they sure don’t make it easy to find.

But, you can go through all the actual spending reports and work it out…

… so I did for my local school district.

It was a lot.

How to do find out what your school district is really spending money on….

It is pretty boring and it will take a couple of hours.

(It took me a bit over 4 hours or so to go through all of 2018)

Schools are required to make all their payments available to the public. They’re called warrants and they are included, but rarely discussed during almost every school board meeting in the “Consent Agenda” portion of the meeting.

So, I went to my local school district web site, and clicked on the Board Agendas, Minutes, and Summaries menu item, find a meeting agenda and click it.

Easy peasy.

Now, you’ll have to find something called the “Proposed Consent Agenda” or something similar and look for a topic like “Listing of Payments to Meet District Expenditures” or some such.

Then look for a file to download.

Now the fun begins.

You have to start looking for law firms. There aren’t going to be a lot. Their name will end in LLP or ESQ some such. They may not even be included in every report.

For us, it is the locally notorious law firm well known for representing school districts in special education cases – Fagan, Friedman, and Fulfrost, LLP.

(I did cheat a bit here as someone told me who these guys are – if you know the names of other firms that represent school districts, let me know and we’ll share their names).

Then, look for the account code associated with the law firm…. you’ve probably found your special education budget section (ours is 01-65xx).

Save that for future projects.

Now, you can start scanning faster. Focus on the bills associated with that budget category. You’ll find some fun items. Consultants, computers, taxi cabs… companies that you’ve never heard of making a lot of money.

Welcome to Forensic Accounting – Special Ed Style

You may also find entertaining notes like “(Someone) vs. (your school district)” or “Settlement” or “Compromise Agreement” or individual names or names of couples who are getting money from the school district from your special education budget.

Sometimes its a lot.

Fagan, Friedman, and Fulfrost LLP had a good October 2018 (paid in January 2019)… $32,313.83!

Mccauley, Sheng, and Dion also had a good month “Attorney Fees” – $7500… probably (hopefully) a legal settlement for helping a family get their child the education they deserve (Go MSD!).

For those of you keeping track, that is $39,813.83 of your (California) tax payer dollars spent on lawyers, not education.

For just one month in just one school district.

Now, no one really cares about special education spending (except to complain about it in general and “encroachment” in particular), so, you’ll find account numbers bouncing around a lot. While it would be sensible and responsible to have a clear charge category for lawyers representing the school district and the settlement costs, lawyer fees, and other parts of the Special Education Bureaucrat-Lawyer Complex… no one is looking, so why bother?

(It would also be neat if the state tracked this to find outlier school districts and see what they are spending on lawyers, not education, let’s get back to that.)

(So, I kept going through the rest of the warrant report files for 2018):

Report DateFagen, Friedman, Fulfrost LLPAttorney Fees
10-Jan-19 (not
included in
totals below)
$32,313.83 $7,500.00
15-Nov-18 $15,769.41
1-Nov-18 $11,381.28
25-Oct-18 $22,380.96 $5,000.00
23-Aug-18$26,222.25
9-Aug-18$16,641.38 $10,200.00
7-Jun-18$36,254.04 $8,000.00
7-May-18$72,400.00
19-Apr-18$15,579.58
22-Feb-18$17,761.28$3,900.00
8-Feb-18$25,252.78 $13,500.00
25-Jan-18$3,900.00
11-Jan-18$14,892.53$6,900.00
Totals (2018)$202,135.49 $123,800.00
Grand Total (2018)$325,935.49

Our friends, Fagan, Friedman, and Fulfrost LLP had a good 2018, courtesy of you, me, and my school district:

$202, 135.49

Now, because they’re lawyers, their bills are out of kilter and they were billing for 2017 in 2018 and will be billing in 2019 for 2018…

But, it was a pretty good year.

On the other side of the fence, the numbers are harder to parse. Again, no sensible account codes, pretty worthless notes, so my estimate for legal settlements, fees, and such is in the neighborhood of:

$123,800.00

I may be way off on that…I had to do this by hand and our delightful finance people made it extra easy by making the report PDF an image so you can’t select or search on text.

I am also not on their list of favorite people at the moment.

Let’s just call it $240,000 instead of just over $325,000…

… to make the math easy and conservative.

Now, we have around 1200 students with disabilities in our school district, so, by the power of wacky math, we’ll estimate an average annual legal cost of …

$200 per special education student per year.

In California, there are 703,977 students with disabilities. 11.3% of our student population.

So, if my district is average in its legal spending fighting against its own students with disabilities, then the total annual spending to lawyers and settlements and not education for California is:

$140,795,400 per year

Now, maybe my district is super aggressive in its legal action against its special education families…

It might be.

I’d like to know (as would my neighbors, I suspect).

It is depressingly average by pretty much every other metric.

But I don’t know.

And you don’t know.

Let’s assume that they are super aggressive and that the Bay Area is going to have super expensive lawyers and a lot bigger settlement costs…

So, let’s cut the total for legal fees and settlements in half – from $325,935.49 down to:

$162,967.75 for the year 2018 for our district.

And then figure out an average per student number (1200ish Students with Disabilities)… gives us:

$135.81 per student.

And, one more time, multiply that by the 703,977 Students with Disabilities in California:

$95,604,620.18 per year

Still pretty big (at least in my book).

I’m guessing the number is somewhere between the two.

Who knows?

Let’s find out.

Homework Assignment

Go look up your local school district (or any school district) and play Forensic Accountant for a couple of hours and tell me (and everyone else) what you find out.

Here’s what I need:

  • School District Name
  • Web Site
  • School District Law Firm Name(s)
  • Amount Spent on Fighting Parents
  • Amount Spent on Settlements, Legal Fees, etc.
  • Anything else you find and would like to share.

You can post your answers in the comments below or fill out the form if you want more anonymity.

If you just want to follow along, join snkids.org or sign up for our mail list.

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