Volume 2 Issue 1

Special Ed Legal Fees Questioned

Why Are They So High?

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by a Jeffco Parent

There has been a lot of press lately about Jeffco School’s use of attorneys, including who they are, what part of the district they represent, the cost, and how that money could be better spent. But not enough attention has been given to these questions as they relate to special education in Jeffco Schools, with an eye toward better budgetary systems.

The school district procures legal services from multiple sources, but only fees paid to Caplan and Earnest are separated out by purpose in the school district’s database of expenditures.

Jeffco Schools paid Caplan and Earnest $400,291.70 in legal fees from July 2012 through June 2013. The legal fees for special education totaled $138,343.80, or 35 percent of the amount paid to this law firm. The remaining 65 percent was split among eight other subcategories.

Roughly 10 percent of Jeffco Schools’ 85,000 students are eligible for special education. So why are more than a third of the legal fees spent on one-tenth of the student population?

In order to qualify for special education, a student has to be evaluated and meet certain criteria. Once eligibility is determined, the student, parents, teachers, and other school staff jointly create an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The school and the district are responsible for the implementation of the plan. If the educational plan is carried out as designed, no attorneys need to be involved.

It’s when the plan breaks down that legal costs may be incurred. The question then becomes, are the extra legal fees indicative of a problem with special education in Jeffco? If so, what is the problem, how many students are affected, and what can be done to ensure that the district’s financial resources are utilized in the best way for special needs students?

Not only are the expenditures for special education legal fees higher than the other subcategories covered by Caplan and Earnest, but Jeffco Schools also has spent triple the $55,000 annual budgeted amount for these services in each of the past three years. For Fiscal Year 2010-11, the actual amount spent was $174,277. The next year spending increased to $180,928.50. Finally, in 2012-13, another $138,343.80 was actually spent. Those responsible for creating, monitoring, and reporting on the budget surely must have observed the major discrepancy. Why did the district continue to budget the same amount?

I appreciate the transparency with which the new school board hired the attorney. Never before has the board discussed the hiring of special services in a public meeting. I hope the new board also digs into the reasons legal fees for special education services have been so much higher than budgeted, and brings the increased level of transparency to the expenditures for special education services, too.

We can do better for less.