Some Districts Refuse to Release Cost Records

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How much an Orange County school district spends on legal bills to fight families seeking special education services is often a tightly held secret, despite assertions from open-government advocates that those records should be public.

To gauge how much school districts across Orange County were spending on these cases, Voice of OC requested under the California Public Records Act legal bills accumulated by districts to fight families in six individual cases.

Only two districts promptly and readily provided the information — Los Alamitos Unified School District and Brea Olinda Unified School District.

After initially refusing, Capistrano Unified School District rejected legal advice to withhold the costs and released the records.

School districts still refusing to release the cost records include Newport-Mesa Unified, Garden Grove Unified and Orange Unified.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the statewide open-government advocacy group CalAware and Voice of OC’s open-government consultant, said parents have over the years contacted him about school districts “opening the public’s wallet” to fight families seeking special education.

“The common tactic is to treat this spending — which may be more than it costs to provide the special education services — as some kind of legitimate secret,” Francke said. “It’s not. But if it wears the parents down and leads them to give up, it works.”

All of the districts that refused to provide cost records have done so on the advice of Costa Mesa attorney S. Daniel Harbottle. He also represents the districts against the families seeking services, so the legal costs sought are amounts paid to his law group.

In the Garden Grove and Orange Unified cases, however, the Orange County Department of Education’s general counsel office also was deployed to dispute the public records requests.

Harbottle argued in his letters that the legal costs are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act because the cases are ongoing.

But Francke noted that case law states “no public purpose is served by” withholding the records, adding release supports a substantial public purpose when a case is of current community interest.

Harbottle didn’t respond to interview requests.

Lysa M. Saltzman, a county education department attorney representing both Garden Grove Unified and Orange Unified, also argued that costs need not be released when the cases are ongoing.

“Disclosure of the district’s attorneys’ fees invoices would unfairly prejudice the district’s defense,” she wrote in a June 25 letter on the Orange Unified case. And the release “could hamper the parties’ efforts to negotiated settlement of the remaining issues.”

Harbottle also represents Los Alamitos Unified and Capistrano Unified on special education and handled the public records requests made to those districts in May.

But from the time she was first contacted by a Voice of OC reporter, Norma del Rio, Los Alamitos’ director of student support services, said the district would release the costs. She searched through old records from prior administrative regimes to meet the request.

“It is the superintendent’s office decision to release the records,” she said.

Showing similar openness, attorney Darin W. Barber of Whittier, who represents Brea Olinda Unified, immediately began providing legal costs, which included those for his representation of the district in the case.

At Capistrano Unified, Marcus Walton, the district’s chief communications officer, consistently sought to release the cost records.

But at one point Capistrano Unified declined to release the records on the advice of Harbottle and attempted to shift the legal challenge to the records request to the county education department.

Ultimately, however, that plan was nixed, and Capistrano Unified agreed to provide the records. “I want to apologize” for the delay, said Walton when providing the in formation.

— REX DALTON

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