In the school year ending June 30, the Prince George's County school system spent about $844,000 on legal fees--three times what it spent the year before--primarily fighting a federal court case brought by the NAACP contending the schools never achieved full desegregation.
Neighboring Montgomery County spent about $524,000, or $166,000 more than in 1981, largely defending school closing appeals and suits filed by parents of handicapped students.
In these and other suburban school districts throughout the country, communities, parents and organizations are suing local school boards in increasing numbers--and winning. The financial costs to schools, and ultimately, to taxpayers, can be considerable.
Parents have "rising expectations" of what schools should do for their children, says Judy Ricker, assistant executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. And they're not afraid to press those expectations in court, because "they're aware these types of cases can be won."
Says Eleanor Zappone, Montgomery school board president, "If you come down on the wrong side of anyone's decision, they automatically look to the next body to appeal it to."
At the same time, financially strapped school boards are looking for ways to spend less money. They're closing schools, cutting programs--and fighting in court the parents who stand in the way of their plans. The National School Board Association says the number of attorneys representing school boards that have sought its guidance in education law has grown from 900 in 1980 to more than 1,500 this year.
Lawyers are charging more. In Montgomery County in 1978, for example, the school board attorney charged $45 an hour. Now the school system has several attorneys specializing in such areas as desegregation and special education. They charge $80 to $95 an hour.
Some local districts so far seem to have escaped high legal costs. The Fairfax County school system, for example, spent $234,000 last year. In Arlington, legal fees came to only $4,500.
In Montgomery County, legal spending has become political fodder. School board candidates accuse their incumbent opponents of making decisions that beg to be appealed, diverting funds from educational programs.
Officials in Montgomery and Prince George's deny that instructional programs or teacher salaries have been hurt so far.
"These funds were allocated separately and in no way jeopardize the education of school children," said Montgomery board member Marian Greenblatt.School board staff assistant Tom Fess says that steps were taken to freeze administrative positions as early as last November when school officials projected a deficit of $53,200 in legal funds. An open administrative position with a salary of $38,964 was diverted to cover the deficit, as well as a $49,916 special assistant position.
In addition, last spring, the school board requested and received $100,000 from the county council to pay for legal costs.
Superintendent Edward Andrews says he is concerned about the possible effect on educational programs if legal costs continue to rise at present rates.
Obviously, both sides in these legal arguments believe their money is well spent. Prince George's school board member Al James Golato says the board was correct in fighting the desegregation case, which took eight weeks to try and has not been decided.
"If the plaintiffs were to succeed in this case then P.G. would probably go down the tubes," Golato says, adding that county residents would not support busing. "There has been so much white flight already. The people just can't tolerate that again."
Board member Bonnie Johns sides with the NAACP. "If the money that has been spent results in greater educational opportunity for minority children, then it is worth it," she says. "If minority students come out ill-prepared and ill-equipped, they can't become independent and productive and they will still be using tax dollars."
Many of the court cases involve special education classes. A 1981 study by the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts showed the number of court cases involving special education placement rose nationwide from 217 in 1977 to 527 in 1980.
"That figure only represents the tip of the iceberg because it doesn't count all the cases that were brought before local and state boards of education and never got as far as the courts," said Thomas Marvel, the center's senior staff attorney. "There has been a massive increase in special education placement appeals."
In Montgomery County, the school system spent $91,775 on special education cases in fiscal 1982, up from $49,293 in fiscal 1979. The 1982 amount involved 38 cases, some of which have gone from the local hearing level to state board of education hearings and on to federal court.
The better-known cases in Montgomery County revolve around the school board's decision last fall to close 28 schools by 1984 because of declining enrollment, and change attendance boundaries for other schools.
Several of those decisions have appeals pending and the Maryland Board of Education already has reversed three. While board incumbent Blair Ewing (whose seat is not up for reelection) says bad decision-making on the part of the board majority is to blame for the high legal costs, board member Greenblatt says, "Whatever the board voted, there would have been appeals on each and every case. . . that is the nature of this community."