A 5-year-old order to improve special education in Los Angeles touched off a legal brawl Tuesday as school officials and advocates for disabled students headed back to federal court amid personal attacks and charges of bad faith.
Lawyers representing 83,000 special education students filed a complaint accusing the school district administration of making an "about-face" on its commitment to a 1996 consent decree that pledged the district to take certain steps to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities.
Saying Supt. Roy Romer has dismissed and denigrated the needs of disabled students, Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, called for Romer, the former Colorado governor, to be removed.
"Shame on Mark Rosenbaum," retorted district General Counsel Harold J. Kwalwasser. "It's a know-nothing comment."
District officials, who have been preparing a court petition to dismantle a process that they call a Rube Goldberg contraption, accused the attorneys and consultants who bill time under the consent decree of a desperate attempt to protect their stake in a failed system.
"Any administrator who is as well paid as they are is going to say, 'This should go on,' " Romer said angrily.
In response to the complaint from the ACLU and allied law firms, district lawyers informed the court Tuesday that they will file a motion today seeking to modify the original court order.
For the district's part, Kwalwasser said the lawyers for the disabled students had asked the district for several delays in taking its petition to court, then launched a legal "sneak attack" in an attempt to sway public opinion.
"I can only believe this particular stunt is intended to try to obfuscate the real limits in what they've accomplished in five years," Kwalwasser said.
The nasty personal edge to the dispute reflects a simmering resentment between advocates for disabled students and district officials that began a year ago when Romer addressed school administrators for the first time in a mass back-to-school meeting.
Supporters of the consent decree played a video of that speech Tuesday at a news conference. During the talk, Romer referred to the court order, which is known as the Chanda Smith decree after the student whose case sparked the litigation. He joked that he had heard Chanda Smith was "some form of worship" and, more seriously, compared its structure to the Lilliputians in "Gulliver's Travels."
"Got all these ropes on you," he said. "We've got to get some of those ropes off."
Several parents and special education advocates at the news conference said that the district's treatment of students had markedly improved under the consent decree, but that Romer's arrival had coincided with a return of the hostile environment that precipitated the lawsuit.
"The consent decree was working until Mr. Romer rode into town a year ago," said Helen Woo, the mother of a 9-year-old autistic child.
The Board of Education, which has not yet formally voted to file the petition, scheduled a special closed-door meeting today to review the proposal.
"We've been well-briefed along the way," said board President Caprice Young. "I would venture to say there is broad support for reforming the way we manage special education. What we've been doing hasn't been working. We've spent more than $80 million on paperwork, process and attorneys. We need to focus our resources on serving kids."
The consent decree requires the school district to expand educational offerings to the system's disabled students and move more of them into regular classes.
In agreeing to it, the school board in 1996 concurred with a U.S. Department of Education investigation that found the district out of compliance with the federal 1973 Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
Rosenbaum said the district has failed to fulfill the requirements of the court order.
Romer countered that he has a deep interest in the needs of disabled students going back to his days in the Colorado statehouse. He said he created an assistant superintendent position to focus on their needs and has increased the special education budget by $170 million.
"We know the children need the services and we are going to deliver," he said.
He said his demand for a modification of the consent decree stems from the frustrations of his administrators dealing with a micro-managed process.
District officials said the structure set up by the court is unwieldy. It consists of 14 committees of parents, teachers and advocates. The committees are supervised by two administrators, one appointed by the district and one by the plaintiffs. The committees were charged with preparing 31 plans (since reduced to 24) covering every aspect of special education.
Kwalwasser, the general counsel, said the plans are over-prescriptive and have become an obstacle to serving special education needs.
In one instance, he said, a plan spells out exactly how the district should apply for a state grant program that no longer uses the same application process.
"It took me 30 seconds to decide this plan was a poor management device," he said. "Lots of plans make lots of errors, ask us to perform lots of irrelevant and inconsistent things."
Kwalwasser said the district's petition will ask the court to dissolve the committees, let the district set up a different procedure for parent participation and leave district managers to decide how best to provide services, possibly under the scrutiny of a special master.
"If we fail, we expect to be held responsible by the court," Kwalwasser said.