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Representing school clients is more than A-B-C

Like businesses and individuals, schools need lawyers, too. Whether it serves a few hundred students or several thousand, a school district requires specialized legal services in a variety of areas.

"I think most people would be surprise how broad and complex school law is," said William "Woody" Merrill, an attorney specializing in school law. "School attorneys practice in the complex fields of facilities, finance, public agency law and human resources, as well as the areas one might expect, such as student discipline and special education. These areas of the law are also constantly changing."

Merrill is a partner with the San Diego office of Best Best & Krieger and chairs the firm's local school law practice group. Twelve of the firm's 37 San Diego-based attorneys practice in the area of school law. In addition to its San Diego office, Best Best & Krieger has seven other offices throughout California, all of which provide school law services. The firm's school clients are spread throughout the state. Local clients include the school districts of Cardiff, Carlsbad, Cajon Valley, Del Mar, Lemon Grove, Oceanside, Poway, Sweetwater and Vista, as well as the San Diego County Office of Education and the San Diego, Southwestern and Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College Districts.

Lawyers at Best Best & Krieger, including Tyree Dorward (L-R), Steven Lake and Shawn Hagerty represent school clients.

"Our role changes with each client because each agency has a unique set of needs," Merrill said. "For some clients we serve as general counsel, overseeing most of their legal work. In other districts, we are retained as special counsel to provide legal services in specific areas."

On any given day, Best Best & Krieger attorneys are handling a myriad of legal issues that can come under the heading of school law. Because school districts are public agencies, the firm's background in public agency law is invaluable.

Special education law growing

Special education is one of the fastest growing areas of law for school attorneys. According to Steven Lake, of counsel to Best Best & Kreiger, "Special education legal issues are increasing because more children are in special education programs, schools must comply with an increasingly complex array of federal and state laws, and parents are becoming more assertive in advocating for their children."

The federal law that governs special education -- the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- mandates many school district duties, such as locating, identifying and evaluating all children with potential disabilities within their jurisdiction, and designing and implementing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each eligible child. Complicating the situation is that lengthy, new IDEA regulations were issued last October and school districts are still struggling to understand all the changes. Additionally, California regulations do not yet reflect the IDEA changes, so school attorneys must identify and sort out the conflicts.

Disputes, often emotionally charged, can erupt between a school district and parents over many aspects of a student's special education program. If the two sides cannot resolve the conflict, the IDEA offers alternative dispute resolution methods, as well as a quasi-judicial due process hearing presided over by an administrative law judge from California's Office of Administrative Hearings. Aggrieved parties have an appeal right to federal or state court. BB&K attorneys participate in the IDEA dispute resolution process on a regular basis.

The role of a school attorney in special education matters isn't limited to just disputed matters. Schools often call upon their attorneys to deal with specific disciplinary and behavioral issues. According to Lake, different discipline rules apply to children with disabilities if their behavior is determined to be a "manifestation" of their disability. "For example, a school must decide whether a child with an emotional disturbance who pulls a fire alarm was acting out because of his disability." The IDEA has specific rules for making such manifestation determinations.

"When we give advice to schools on how to handle a problem, it has to be individualized to the facts of that situation. There is rarely a 'one size fits all' answer. And that's because appropriate school solutions always depend on identifying and serving a child's unique needs," Lake said.

School facilities

School attorneys assist clients in the acquisition, building, updating and maintaining of facilities. Tyree Dorward, a senior associate with Best Best & Krieger's San Diego school law group, said, "We work with schools in all aspects of their facilities needs -- from raising funds to acquiring or condemning properties to drafting contracts and interacting in the construction process. Our litigation team works with districts when problems arise regarding the design or construction of buildings."

The firm is one of few local firms with a public finance attorney who has extensive expertise in bonds and other types of public funding specifically for school districts. One Best Best & Krieger partner who works closely with school clients is also a licensed civil engineer.

School attorneys that do facilities legal work must know both the Public Contract Code and the California Education Code, as both have specific requirements applicable to the acquisition, design, construction and/or modernization of school facilities. For example, the Education Code places specific guidelines on the proximity and location of new schools to potential hazards such as gas pipelines, airports and railroad tracks. Attorneys must also deal with specialized environmental standards included in the Education Code. In addition to these laws, school attorneys must also be adept at working with the various state agencies responsible for overseeing school districts and facilities projects they undertake.

To stay current on the specific needs of school districts, Best Best & Krieger's attorneys are active members of several education organizations, including the Coalition of Adequate School Housing, California Association of School Business Officials, California Council of School Attorneys, and the California and National School Boards Associations. These organizations provide valuable information that Best Best & Krieger attorneys use to analyze legal trends and strategize with clients to resolve matters before legal problems arise.

Warren is founder and principal of TW2 Marketing.

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