Education reform costly in court

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The Louisiana Department of Education could find itself mired in state and federal courtroom disputes for years to come, thanks to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sweeping education reform legislation and to the confusing mishmash of educational bureaucracy in Orleans Parish.



Disregard for the time being the last month’s court ruling that could end up costing the Orleans Parish School Board upward of a billion dollars for the wrongful firing about 7,000 teachers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That lawsuit did not involve the state – only Orleans Parish.



But across the state, several parish school boards and teachers unions are lining up as plaintiffs in various lawsuits against Jindal, the Louisiana Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) contesting Jindal’s reform package being hailed by media everywhere but in Louisiana as groundbreaking, innovative and progressive.

One interesting development at the local level occurred when the Lincoln Parish School Board in Ruston recently voted to join litigation against Jindal’s move to usurp Minimum Foundation Program funds and local tax revenue from local school boards and to use those monies to pay for vouchers, or scholarships to other schools – even if those other schools were in another parish.


The local boards contend that those funds are dedicated to the parishes and should not be taken away.



In the case of Lincoln Parish, board member Trot Hunt was the only dissenting vote when the board voted to join as a plaintiff against the administration. He said the board could well do with a little more budgetary constraint.

But did Hunt have an ulterior motive other than fiscal prudence?



Well, consider this: his firm, Hunt-Guillot and Associates, has a couple of mega-contracts with the state, which total more than $18 million, according to state documents. The largest, for $17.6 million, calls for the firm to administer HUD grant management activities for infrastructure and other projects undertaken as a result of damages from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. The other, a $900,000 contract, calls for the company to review applications for grant funds for the Department of Health and Hospitals.



Hunt-Guillot also contributed $4,750 to Jindal’s campaign in 2007 and Trot Hunt personally gave $5,000 that same year.

If Hunt needed further incentive to vote against joining the lawsuit, there’s also the fact that his business partner, Jay Guillot, is a member of BESE, having been elected last fall thanks in part to strong support from Jindal that included a $5,000 contribution from the governor’s own campaign. BESE, of course, overwhelmingly supported the Jindal reform package that calls for vouchers, the creation of charter schools and more teacher accountability.


That aside, there is yet another lawsuit brewing down in New Orleans, this one in the Eastern District of U.S. Federal Court.


If the Department of Education’s action back in May is any indication, it is taking this lawsuit quite seriously.

After eschewing Louisiana law firms and the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, the department decided to enlist the powerful Washington, D.C., law firm of Hogan-Lovelis as its defense counsel. The initial contract was for $249,999 – $1 less than the $250,000 threshold at which the approval of BESE President Penny Dastugue was required.



But on May 30, it was decided to go for broke in defending this lawsuit when state Supt. John White requested that Dastugue approve a $1.2 million amendment, bringing the contract to an eye-popping $1,449,000. Dastugue signed off on White’s request on June 6.



The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in October 2010 on behalf of 10 lead plaintiffs and approximately 4,500 Orleans Parish students with learning and physical disabilities. It names former state Supt. of Education Paul Pastorek, the State Department of Education and BESE.

The suit claims that 16 Orleans Parish schools fall under the parish school board, 23 are run by the Recovery School District (RSD) and 49 more are stand-alone charter schools. This arrangement, the lawsuit claims, results in the creation of 51 separate school districts or local education agencies (LEA).

This arrangement, the petition says, creates a confusing, impossible-to-navigate system for children with disabilities who, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), are entitled to “the appropriate resources, policies and procedures” to provide an unfettered access to special education services – “from evaluations to related services and supports.”

Federal law prohibits public entities from discriminating against individuals with disabilities but, the lawsuit claims, students have been subjected to systemic violations that included:

• Discrimination and denial of access to educational services;

• Failure to develop and implement child find procedures are required by law;

• Failure to provide free appropriate public education;

• Failure to protect students’ procedural safeguards in the disciplinary process.

The petition cites a survey conducted by Educational Support Systems, which said that schools “under-identify” students with disabilities in an effort to escape their legal obligations under IDEA.

Some students referred to the RSD for initial evaluations “frequently must wait months before an evaluation occurs – losing valuable educational time during the wait,” the suit says.

“New Orleans is the only geographic region in the state in which students cannot receive child find services until they are actually admitted and enrolled in a public school,” it added.

The lawsuit also claims that the RSD has an “abysmal” graduation and school completion rate for students with disabilities. “On average, across the state of Louisiana, 19.4 percent of all students with disabilities graduate with a diploma,” it says. In comparison, only 6.8 percent of RSD students with disabilities obtain a diploma, the petition says.

While he tries to put positive spin on the recent legislative session, there can be no denying that Jindal fell far short of getting what he wanted in terms of state employee retirement reform and the sale of state prisons.

Even though he appears to have been successful with his education reform, there are signs that his support in the Legislature may be starting to crumble in that regard as well.

Legislators, already miffed at demotions within their ranks, the use of one-time funds for recurring expenses, the veto of a major commercial project in Livingston Parish and drastic cuts to higher education and the closure of a prison in central Louisiana, are also hearing from their local school boards and public school teachers.

And what they’re hearing may be causing them to entertain second thoughts about their having allowed the governor to rip funds from local school boards.