Lawyers for the state Department of Education began their defense Tuesday in a federal special-education lawsuit brought by the Chester Upland School District, saying that no law had been violated and that the district had done too little to solve its own problems.
In testimony last week and Monday, Chester Upland's lawyers sought to show U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson that the district faces a large funding shortfall in providing legally required services for its 735 special-education students. The district may have too little money to open schools in September, they said, much less provide for special-needs children.
Amy Foerster, an attorney for the Education Department, told Baylson Tuesday that the district has more money available for special education than it claims.
Foerster said the district lacked reliable current financial information and sound fiscal controls, making it difficult to rely on its budget projections. And, she said, it has not made the "tough decisions" — for example, to cut transportation and athletics, and close school buildings in order to fund academics — that it should be taking before it can claim it does not have enough funding.
The Education Department, Foerster said, will step in if needed to make sure the district adheres to special-education laws without providing a financial bailout. Chester Upland, which ran out of money and almost closed its doors this year, brought suit in January against the Education Department, the governor, and the legislature, asking that Baylson order the state to provide enough money to keep the schools open. Baylson ordered a $3.2 million payment, then brokered assurances that the 3,375-student district would have enough money to stay open until June.
Most of the funding issues were shifted to state court, but Baylson retains jurisdiction over whether the district is in compliance with federal special-education law.
On Monday, Foerster offered to settle the case by agreeing to a court order saying the state would abide by federal special-education law and district students would receive the services to which they were entitled.
Attorneys for the district and district parents said they wanted to see a plan for how services would be provided, and would reply with a proposal of their own.
Baylson urged the district to consider the offer, adding that it would establish a dispute resolution process and that "I'm not sure I have the jurisdiction to detail, point by point, how a 'Free and Appropriate Public Education' would be administered to hundreds of kids."
If no settlement is reached, expert witnesses will testify next week. Then the case will be revisited after the district and the state pass final budgets in June.