School board approves legal fees

Much of the $1.45 million goes toward representation in a special education lawsuit


The Baltimore school board has approved spending $1.45 million in legal fees, the bulk of it for lawyers defending the school system in a long-standing special education lawsuit.

The payments approved by the board this month include $1 million to Washington-based Hogan & Hartson for representation in the special education lawsuit from July of this year through June 2006. A $250,000 payment will go to the firm of Seyfarth Shaw to cover the services of attorney Abbey G. Hairston from July through this month.

The school board is supposed to approve contracts before work begins. School board Chairman Brian D. Morris said that the board already had contracts with the law firms but that the money approved under those had run out.

The board also approved a $200,000 contract with Miles & Stockbridge to represent the school system's appeal of a federal audit of the system's Medicaid billing.

The city school system receives Medicaid reimbursement to cover part of the cost of medical services, such as speech and physical therapy, provided to special education students from low-income families, as well as the cost of students' transportation to school on days they receive those services.

Federal auditors say they've had problems with the city's recordkeeping and can't determine whether services were provided or whether the contractors who provided the services were qualified to do so. The alleged irregularities - if upheld by the audit - could cost the school system millions of dollars.

Before voting on the measures, some school board members expressed frustration over the cost of the special education lawsuit, which was filed in 1984 on behalf of children with disabilities against the state and the school system.

In August, exasperated with the school system's problems serving special education students, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ordered the state to send nine managers to oversee school system departments that affect special education.

"I understand the need for these expenditures," school board member Anirban Basu said of the legal fees at a school board meeting Tuesday night. "That doesn't make them any less regrettable."

Board member Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman said that, in addition to its own legal fees, the school system is spending about $750,000 a year on court-ordered fees for the lawyers representing special education children and for the operation of a special master's office. The system is also responsible for covering the salaries of the nine state managers.

"We are being asked to do things that are very expensive and not necessarily in the best interest of children," Hettleman said.

Morris released a statement saying the board's action "demonstrates yet another expense that the system has to bear that takes limited dollars away from our students in the classroom."

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