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Milwaukee Public Schools Appeal Special Education Ruling

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article:

MPS calls judge’s ruling too costly
District appeals order to search for unidentified special-needs students
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: July 9, 2009

Milwaukee Public Schools this week filed an appeal in an ongoing special education lawsuit, saying that a federal judge’s order from last month is too broad and too costly to implement.

The order from U.S. Magistrate Judge Aaron Goodstein required MPS to launch a wide search for former and current students – including regular education students – it failed to serve under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from 2000 to 2005. The judge ordered that those students should be compensated but left the details on how to do that up to the plaintiff and defendants.

MPS officials said the costs of carrying out such a search with so many students would burden the district and taxpayers. The appeal also challenges several previous court rulings in the case, including an order that the district take remedial action on a class-wide basis, and a ruling that obligated the district to evaluate kids for special needs who have been retained a grade or received multiple suspensions.

Superintendent William Andrekopoulos admitted Thursday, “We do play a role in some of this. We agree that maybe we missed some kids.”

Rudolph M. Konrad, a Milwaukee deputy city attorney, said that if the rulings from the lower courts were upheld, it could hurt the district’s finances.

“If in the course of these negotiations, we arrive at a final conclusion that we deem acceptable, reasonable and within parameters that the district can afford, we can drop the appeal,” Konrad said.

The move is yet another hang-up in a laborious, 8-year-old lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Wisconsin. In earlier rulings, Goodstein ruled that Milwaukee had violated students’ rights and ordered major changes in MPS when it comes to evaluating children for special education. MPS is implementing those changes.

In the latest ruling, Goodstein ordered the plaintiffs and defendants to provide proposals by July 24 on how they were going to proceed with the remedy to locate and compensate students who missed receiving special education services. According to MPS, the individuals who could be affected by the lawsuit range in age from 7 to 29 years old.

MPS officials said they’re not willing to negotiate because of the unknowns when it comes to the cost of finding and compensating students. Andrekopoulos said that even determining how many kids they need to contact regarding the issue is unclear.

“If you’re (contacting) the kids who have been retained (a grade), plus the kids who have been suspended a number of days, that’s thousands of children,” Andrekopoulos said.

He said, “Then the question is: What’s our obligation to find these students and send a notice out saying, ‘Did you feel that you needed to have special-needs services?’ Is it posted on the Internet? Do you send a letter to every child in the district, or do we send a letter only to children who were retained or suspended?”

Andrekopoulos added that proposals for how to compensate the students have varied from paying their college tuition to giving them a computer. Some of the plaintiffs’ requests have been unrealistic, he said.

But Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, the managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, said he doesn’t think the district has any grounds for appeal.

“There’s no financial defense to violating kids’ special education rights,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “What they’ve chosen to do throughout this case, and what they’re doing now, is making a decision to pay attorneys rather than compensate kids whose rights have been violated.”

Spitzer-Resnick said regular education children needed to be included in the search because those were the very children who might have missed getting evaluated for services. Districts have a duty to look for kids who may have disabilities and evaluate them, Spitzer-Resnick said.

He added that MPS shouldn’t be claiming the remedy is going to be too expensive before the details of the remedy have been established.

Click here to read the full article on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website.

Print version of July 10 Milwaukee Public Radio piece:

It may be a while before thousands of Milwaukee Public School students denied special education services will be compensated. That’s because MPS plans to appeal a recent ruling in the case. WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson has more.

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In 2007, a federal magistrate ruled that MPS and the State Department of Public Instruction failed to accommodate some students who needed special education services. Last month, the judge ordered the district to come up with a plan for compensating the students who attended MPS between 2000 and 2005. The proposal is due July 24.

School Board President Michael Bonds says the judge ordered an extremely broad pool of potential students to be compensated. He says the district would have to do an extensive amount of research identifying and locating all the students.

“The scope of the remedy is beyond the finding and it’s so broad that literally it will cost MPS millions of dollars. The finding was special ed students from 2000 to 2005 but the remedy includes regular students too,” Bonds says.

According to Bonds, the district is doing the right thing for taxpayers by appealing the ruling. He says some students may have already graduated, and the district would have to spend countless hours tracking them down. In addition, Bonds says he doesn’t know why the judge’s ruling includes regular education students, and that is the primary grounds for the appeal.

Atty. Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, of the group Disability Rights Wisconsin, filed the class action lawsuit in 2001. He says MPS has known all along it would have to compensate some students who should have been in special education classes, but weren’t.

“It has always included regular education children who may be eligible for special education, should have been evaluated and were not. Regular education children who have no disability, they won’t get anything,” Spitzer-Resnick says.

Spitzer-Resnick says there’s no excuse for violating the civil rights of students, and MPS should follow the judge’s order. He adds that in most class action suits, not every victim actually files for compensation. Spitzer-Resnick says the district’s appeal will only result in the case dragging on longer, costing taxpayers more money