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Finance Equity, Employee Discipline, Special Education Top List of Legal Issues

October 14, 2010

By a 2-to-1 margin, school funding outranked such perennial hot-topic legal issues as special education, employee discipline, and collective bargaining in a recent survey of top legal issues facing K-12 education.

Members of the Council of School Attorneys (COSA) were mailed a list of 17 prominent legal issues identified by the editors of American School Board Journal (ASBJ) and NSBA’s Office of General Counsel. The survey was conducted this summer, and 189 responses were received.

Based on the school attorneys’ responses, the top 10 legal issues in K-12 education are:

  1. Finance adequacy and equity
  2. Employee discipline and termination
  3. Special education, including issues involving private placement, attorney fees, and student privacy
  4. Collective bargaining
  5. Student discipline
  6. Employee and student misuse of the Internet
  7. Educator sexual misconduct
  8. Civil rights
  9. Discrimination
  10. School board member governance

Topics that received votes but were not in the top 10 were: student searches; civil rights; free speech; sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims; employment topics, such as those involving the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act; denial of Free Appropriate Public Education under Section 504 for Students with Disabilities; No Child Left Behind Act interventions; and contract issues, such as superintendent procurement.

Funding shortages would appear to be more an issue of policy – not law – for today’s school boards and their attorneys. But as the ranks of school administrators and support staff shrink, telephones are ringing frequently at law offices across the nation.

Why? Sizable layoffs nationwide have left administrators spread thin, with more work on their desks and new and unfamiliar responsibilities to manage, says Chris Keiner, an attorney in Sacramento, California. Gone are many administrators who oversaw – and mastered – the standard contract language used in construction projects, the maze of regulations surrounding special education services, and the intricacies of state and federal labor laws dealing with collective bargaining, tenure, and teacher dismissals.

“So they’re turning to legal counsel for advice,” Keiner explains. “It’s an exceptional burden to comply with all the requirements of local, state, and federal programs and mandates, and part of that burden is falling on attorneys to assist the management team.”

The survey is the second to be conducted by ASBJ and NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys. Like the 2009 survey, the rankings reveal the wide range of legal issues that lawyers who represent school districts address. A sizable number, for example, report devoting much time and energy to disputes related to attorney fees and to student placements related to special education programs. Far fewer report concerns over sexual harassment complaints or the legality of student searches.

To read the complete results of the survey: http://www.asbj.com/MainMenuCategory/Archive/2010/October/School-Laws-Top-Issues.aspx.

Source: American School Board Journal