It started out with a simple request by a Weston parent for the legal agreements made between families with special needs students and school administrators.

It has since turned into a quest of sorts by a handful of parents around the state seeking to find out if, and why, those agreements differ from family to family, district to district, and community to community.

As it turns out, in the case of the handful of communities that have actually turned the documents over, as per a Supreme Judicial Court ruling, the differences are significant. In some cases, parents of one special needs child is charged more than the parents of another, even though their children are going to the same, out-of-district school. In other cases, transportation costs, which run in the tens of thousands of dollars, are paid for by the district, while in other cases, they are not.

 Andover parents have jumped on the bandwagon and have filed freedom of information requests from Andover public schools, seeking the 71 agreements made between the district and parents over the last six years. The district has agreed to provide them, at a cost of $540 -- for the amount of staff time it will take to redact, or black out, personal information from the documents.

For years, pretty much ever since the 1993 Education Reform Act, the cost of special education has gone up for local school districts. In Andover, fully one-third of the school department's $77 million budget was devoted to special education last year.

Within that growing budget-buster is the high cost of educating students out-of-district. 

Not only does it cost tens of thousands of dollars to send a student to a school like Landmark in Beverly or Melmark right here in Andover, but it costs thousands more to transport many of those students.

Further adding to the burden is the high cost of legal fees communities incur while challenging a family's request to send their child out of district. 

Last year the town spent $126,000 in legal fees to fight families who wanted their children to attend specialized schools. By comparison, the school district spent only $100,000 educating those students.

In total, 92 students are sent to schools outside of Andover, at a cost to taxpayers of $4.5 million. Many of them go without a fight from the school district. A small handful of parents, however, get into legal battle with the school district when parents say their child cannot be properly served in Andover schools, but administrators disagree.

 

Same lawyer

Michael Champa changed the way schools must respond to public documents in Massachusetts.

What started as his own request to view four years of out of district settlement agreements between parents and the Weston Public Schools system turned into a Supreme Judicial Court case that set a public records precedent.

With costs so high, school districts across the state have used every means at their disposal to keep children from going to schools outside of their home districts. That means using a school lawyer to fight against a family's lawyer to negotiate the best deal for the district.

In Andover, the same lawyer who represented Weston Public Schools, requiring Champa to pay more than $100,000 in legal fees, now represents Andover Public Schools. Lyons & Rogers is the firm used by Andover, Amy Rogers being the lawyer who fought against releasing settlement agreements in the precedent setting case.

The Champa v. Weston Public Schools case made it possible for parents everywhere, including here in Andover, to receive any and all settlement agreements between a family and a school system. The agreements must be redacted so as not to reveal who the child and family involved is.

 

Growing movement

After the decision, which was issued on Oct. 23, 2015, Jorge Teixeira, a parent to a special needs student, was prompted to fight for the documents from his own school system in Hudson, Mass. Eventually, that personal mission turned into a statewide grassroots organization, called Shine Sunlight, that focuses on obtaining out of district settlement agreements from public school systems across Massachusetts.

Teixeira has experienced firsthand the plight that many parents in Andover say they face when advocating for their children. After the Champa decision, Teixeira said he began fighting not just for his own family, but for all families in Massachusetts who find themselves struggling to get what they feel is best for their child.

"I went after this information because this is such a critical piece of data when parents are trying to make a decision about sending their child out of district," Teixeira said. "I want parents to know about the availability of this information when they get push back from school administration."

School Committee member Ted Teichert and a group of local parents have also taken an interest in getting out of district settlement agreements from Andover Public Schools, dating back to 2011.

Because the settlement agreements oftentimes contain sensitive and personal information, Teichert said many parents are unwilling to speak out because they don’t want to put their child’s placement at risk. In addition, most of them have signed non-disclosure agreements, making it illegal for them to divulge the contents of their agreements.

That's where Teixeira said he wants to help. Through his website, ShineSunlight.org, he requests all out of district settlement agreements from every public school system in Massachusetts, and posts the responses and documents for anyone to access.

Although Andover administrators and the majority of the Andover School Committee don't believe there to be value in reviewing the redacted settlements, Teichert is confident that obtaining all of the agreements will benefit parents of special needs students, and ultimately, the students themselves.

Teichert himself didn’t know whether any laws or policies are being ignored in Andover, but said that as a member of the School Committee elected to make sure students are being treated fairly, he simply wanted to review the agreements “to make sure we’re on the up and up and to make sure our counsel is doing the right thing.”

Seeking documents

One of the people seeking the documents, Teichert, has been trying to get the documents for months. Two of his children attend Landmark, a school in Beverly for kids with dyslexia, but Teichert maintains his reasons for seeking the documents relate more to fairness.

He has been joined in his quest for the documents by Krystal Solimine, a local mother and activist whose children are not special education students but who feels that the documents should be released in the name of government transparency.

According to a Channel 5 report on the subject, the documents portray vastly different responses by school districts.

Champa, according to the news report, found that "sometimes the school district paid for 100 percent of tuition and in other cases only 50 percent, with the parents paying the rest, even though federal law entitles students with disabilities to 'free appropriate public education.'”

He also discovered, according to the report, that the school district paid for transportation for some students, but not others.

“It was horrible for me to read settlement after settlement agreement and see how differently kids were being treated,” said Champa.

The program also showed that parents in more affluent towns like Andover were more likely to fight for and receive big settlement agreements than parents with children in less-wealthy communities.

Teixeira has made the same request for documents to every school district in the state. When he receives them, he posts them on his web site to show taxpayers how their money is being used and how one set of parents and their children are being treated differently from others. So far, he has not received Andover's documents because of the high cost that he said he doesn't find in other school districts.

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