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Forest Grove special ed legal battle costs rising

District has incurred $140K in bills connected to latest case and officials plan to lobby legislature for relief


Costs in excess of $140,000 have already been incurred by the Forest Grove School District as a result of a legal challenge brought this fall by the parents of a special education student at the local high school.

And, say attorneys representing the district, those bills are likely to escalate before the case winds its way through the court system.

District officials are seeking to overturn a mid-September ruling by an administrative law judge from the Oregon Department of Education in Salem, which ordered the district to provide a "compensatory education" for the pupil, including evaluations, counseling sessions and tutoring services. The last move on the chessboard came Oct. 12, when the district filed an appeal of Administrative Law Judge Jill Marie Messecar's ruling in U.S. District Court in Portland, hoping to overturn her finding in favor of the petitioners.

Since then, bills for the ALJ's services have mounted for the district, which is responsible for paying them, as well as costs for a court reporter, which the parents, not the district, requested, said Nancy Hungerford of The Hungerford Law Firm in Oregon City, which is representing the district.

"Regardless of the outcome of a due process hearing, the school district is forced to pay all the costs … whether it prevailed in the ALJ's decision, or whether the district ultimately prevails on appeal," said Hungerford, "and they are very significant costs."

Business Manager Mike Schofield confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the district had paid the $140,000 in three main categories: attorney fees, court reporter fees and ALJ fees. He's just beginning to set pieces of the district's 2o13-14 budget in place as the budget committee convenes in the coming weeks.

It's the second time since 2003 the district is embroiled in a legal challenge to its provision of special ed services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the parents of a former Forest Grove student known only as "T.A." could seek reimbursement for his private schooling outside the district. Two years later, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the district of responsibility for the family's nearly $100,000 in tuition and $500,000 in legal bills.

Though officials counted the circuit court's final word as a legal victory, the district wound up spending at least $244,000 defending itself in the "T.A." case.

The most recent situation, and its resultant costs, have the potential to boil over at the state level, Hungerford said Nov. 8.

"The assignment of these costs to the district is not mandated by federal law, but rather by Oregon Department of Education rules," she noted. "We will be bringing this concern to legislators because it is an additional burden on school districts that is unfounded and unreimbursed by ODE."

Calls and emails to Diane Wiscarson of Wiscarsson Law, the Portland firm representing the parents in the latest case, were not returned by press time.

Hungerford complained about 12 days of testimony over the summer in the case, which "initially was scheduled for only five days," driving up costs for the district.



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