In a settlement approved August 15, 2012, Judge Michael Baylson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania paved the way for significant improvements in the quality of special education in the Chester-Upland School District. “This case has now ended not only with more money for the District, but more promise and potential for the students. Every student with disabilities in the District has the potential to succeed academically, graduate high school, and become a productive adult. Because this fair settlement agreement will help each of those students realize that potential, the Court gladly approves it.”
The settlement brought an end to litigation that began when, in January 2012, the District “faced with the catastrophic possibility that its empty coffers would necessitate closing school mid-year,” sued Department of Education officials. The Law Center intervened on behalf of a class of all children with disabilities, arguing that the financial distress was preventing the children from receiving a free and appropriate public education.
The settlement included an agreement by the Commonwealth to make significant new infusions of cash into the district: a total of approximately $35 million, of which $4 million was for operating expenses in the 2011-12 school year and $31 million to repay past debt and to fund operating expenses for the 2012-13 school year. The Court cited a “startling example of just how bad things got in the District”: an unpaid fuel vendor cut off supplies, forcing the District to siphon off diesel from school buses with full fuel tanks to feed into buses with empty tanks in order to transport the students home.
Key provisions of the settlement agreement require attention to and improvement of the school district’s special education services. The District must hire a Director of Special Education, an additional Special Education Supervisor, school psychologists, a special Education Assistant for ACCESS funds, guidance counselors, and addition special education staff members. The State also must appoint and pay for a Special Education Officer who will be in the district daily and has explicit authority to ensure children receive a free appropriate public education and to oversee and assist with improvements in special education in the critical areas of deficiency..
These provisions are intended to remedy widespread special education deficiencies found by the Court including staff reductions so deep that there were no behavior support specialists or job coaches, lack of 504 services, inconsistencies with the district’s special education plan, lack of counseling services, lack of direct instruction, improper IEP team meetings, delayed evaluations, and lack of speech therapy.
Under the settlement, IEP teams will meet to discuss what deficiencies individual children experienced and what compensatory educational services children will receive, subject to the parents’ rights to object or contest on an individual basis. The settlement expressly preserved the rights of parents to seek compensatory education through due process hearings for failures by the district in past years.
According to the Court: “This controversy, arising out of the District’s near insolvency earlier this year, has resulted in a constructive settlement that has the potential of giving thousands of school children a quality education.”
The Law Center is proud of the results of the lawsuit. It provides an opportunity for progress if the state, district and community use it to start to fix the many problems existing in Chester Upland. We will work with a Parents’ Council to be set up in order to continue to assist in that effort.