Montgomery County Public Schools has paid outside legal counsel over $143,000 to process special education cases for the current school year through October 2022—less than half the amount it spent last school year over the same period. The school system is calling this a win saying it means parents are filing fewer complaints, but outside specialists and attorneys suggest there may be a darker explanation.
The figures were shared in a legal fees report published during a Board of Education meeting on March 7. According to the report, MCPS has spent $143,152 on special education legal expenses this school year as of October 2022, a nearly 54% decrease from last year’s $311,029. The report also showed that the school district has spent $212,916 on non-special education legal expenses, over 44% less than last year.
“It’s a good sign,” MCPS spokesperson Jessica Baxter told MoCo360 via email. “There are fewer due process complaints filed by parents.”
Meanwhile, the school district’s in-house council and legal support staff received $252,588 in funds for special education cases this school year—a $5,400 increase over the amount allocated for both fiscal years 2021 and ’22.
Baxter said MCPS employs three full-time attorneys who handle special education mediation, due process hearings, resolutions and all IEP meetings. She said more cases are now being handled by these in-house attorneys.
Jennifer Reesman is a neuropsychologist based in Bethesda with over a decade of experience working with children with disabilities. She said the process of fighting a decision made by a school IEP team is “costly and arduous” for families and rarely results in a win. She said she suspects many families are giving up on filing complaints, exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual learning.
“If families have to spend $20,000 to retain an attorney, a lot of times they weigh their options and decide they’d be better off spending that money on therapy or tutors for their child,” she said.
Elizabeth Tsakiris is a psychologist with a private practice in Damascus and over 35 years of experience working providing educational services and assessments for students with disabilities. Her reports are frequently included in IEP data, and sometimes she provides independent evaluations at the request of a school.
The vast majority of special education cases die before even reaching the point of due process, Tsakiris said, because parents don’t have the money to hire a private attorney. She said she’s been involved in numerous cases that were referred to mediation, but MCPS refused to mediate.
“If you mediate, that implies there’s something you didn’t do right,” she said. “‘Take us to hearing’—that’s the standard line from MCPS. And then what you’ve done is there’s no way to work it out other than go to court.”
But since parents often don’t have the money to fight what may feel like an uphill legal battle to secure services for their disabled student, their complaint is marked “resolved by mediation” and closed, Tsakiris said.
Michael Eig is the founder and owner of a special education legal firm in Chevy Chase, where he represents parents in due process hearings against their school district arising from IEP disputes. He said the factor of parents giving up on cases is “absolutely true” and added that the success rate for Maryland families in due process appeals is around 20%—second lowest in the nation.
Eig cautioned against drawing any positive conclusions off the school district’s 54% decrease in outside spending.
“Those numbers are very complicated. You can’t look at that one datapoint and know very much,” he said. “Those numbers in and of themselves only tell you that for a couple months they’re spending less on outside counsel. I can confirm that. That’s true. But that’s just one piece of a big puzzle.”
Even with the drop in outside spending, Reesman said she’s alarmed by how much funds the school district is using to fight special education cases.
“If people keep attempting to engage you in litigation, at some point you have to stop and ask, ‘What could we be doing wrong?’” she said. “This is something that should raise everyone’s collective eyebrows.”