INFORMATION REGARDING LAWSUIT BETWEEN KHSD AND DOLORES HUERTA FOUNDATION, et al.
In October 2014, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, The National Brotherhood Association, Faith in Action Kern County (formerly known as Faith in the Valley), and several community members/students (“Plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit against the Kern High School District (“KHSD”) and several other local and state education entities challenging student discipline practices and alleging civil rights violations related to African American and Latino students. In order to put an end to this costly and time consuming litigation KHSD has settled this matter as of July 24, 2017. The information contained here is meant to answer common questions and to provide the position of the KHSD on this matter.
A copy of the settlement agreement in this case is below:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How much money did the students receive in the settlement?
There are 14 students related to this settlement. In the settlement agreement each student will receive $5,000 toward his/her education. The $5,000 is not a cash award. The money is held by the KHSD and may only be spent on the students’ education-related and verified expenses such as tuition, books, vocational training, supplies, and tutoring. The total amount of funds for students under the settlement agreement is seventy thousand dollars ($70,000.00).
How much money did the Plaintiffs’ attorneys receive in the settlement?
The Plaintiffs would not settle the case without paying a large cash award to its attorneys. Despite valuing their litigation efforts at $2.5 million, the Plaintiffs’ attorneys, California Rural Legal Assistance (“CRLA”), Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (“MALDEF”), Equal Justice Society, Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance (“GBLA”), and Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati received a total of six hundred thousand dollars ($600,000.00) from KHSD in this settlement, or approximately one hundred and twenty thousand dollars ($120,000.00) per law firm. How the Plaintiffs’ attorneys elect to distribute the $600,000.00 amongst themselves is unknown.
How much money did KHSD pay its attorneys to defend this lawsuit?
Over the nearly 33 months of this litigation, KHSD has spent, on average, twenty four thousand dollars ($24,000.00) per month to its attorneys to defend the case. To date, KHSD has paid Lozano Smith $679,734.50 in attorney fees and $107,855.73 for litigation-related costs, for a total expense to KHSD of $787,590.33.
Did KHSD’s insurance company pay for the settlement and attorneys’ fees?
No. Contrary to popular belief, insurance companies do not cover all lawsuits that are filed against school districts or public agencies. This lawsuit was not covered by any insurance whatsoever. Accordingly, every dollar spent fighting this lawsuit was taxpayer money that KHSD received as part of its federal and state-budgeted funds, which are meant to be spent on education for things such as books, computers, desks, school buses, paper, pencils, uniforms, instruments, school facilities, sports equipment, teacher and staff professional development and salaries, student activities, transportation, field trips, etc.
When was this lawsuit filed and by whom?
This lawsuit was filed in Kern County Superior Court on October 9, 2014. The organizations and individuals that sued KHSD and other local and state educational agencies were the Dolores Huerta Foundation, The National Brotherhood Association, Faith in Action Kern County, Arlene Sanders, Ruby Watson, Patricia Crawford, Mario Ramirez, Juan Moran, Virginia Melchor, Isidro Larralde, Gabriel Elder, Carmen Ramirez, Keschel Collins, Katina Franks, Marbella Ojeda, Mario Galledo, Catherine Robles, Robert Robles, and Lori de Leon.
What other education agencies were also sued by the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit?
Along with KHSD the Plaintiffs also sued the State of California, Tom Torlakson (State Superintendent of Public Instruction), the California Department of Education (“CDE”), and the Kern County Superintendent of Schools (Kern County Office of Education).
What law firms were involved in this lawsuit?
The Plaintiffs’ attorneys were CRLA, MALDEF, Equal Justice Society, GBLA, and Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. KHSD hired the law firm of Lozano Smith to defend it in this lawsuit. The other local and state education defendants hired separate legal counsel.
Was KHSD found to have violated the law?
No. KHSD has always maintained that it has not violated any civil rights or laws with respect to its student discipline practices. KHSD firmly believes that this lawsuit was unnecessary and that KHSD would have prevailed if this case continued and was either decided through a motion and judicial decision or later by a jury or judge at a trial.
Traditional student discipline practices, such as suspension or expulsion, and the impact on African American and Latino students is not just a KHSD issue and it is not a new concern for educators. Nationally, state-wide, and locally public school districts have identified and acknowledged that African American and Latino students may have been suspended or expelled from school at higher rates than other students. However, this data trend is not necessarily a reflection of an intent or desire to discriminate against those students, nor is this data evidence, per se, of intentional race-based discrimination by a school district’s administration, teachers, staff, or governing board. Certainly, KHSD has not engaged in intentional systemic racist student discipline practices against African American and Latino students. Rather KHSD, like most public school districts nationwide, has been reviewing its student discipline data as it impacts minority students, and reframing its student discipline practices in order to address the statistically disproportionate suspension and expulsion of students of color.
As the settlement agreement in this litigation states:
The Parties acknowledge that historically African American and Latino students had disproportionate suspensions and expulsions in the District. The Parties acknowledge and agree that District administrators recognized these issues and began a pilot program of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (“PBIS”) in the 2014-2015 school year at Bakersfield High School, which began the District’s overall and District-wide commitment to addressing student discipline issues. The Parties acknowledge and agree that the District has committed significant time, effort and funds toward addressing student discipline, alternative placements, equity, PBIS, multi-tiered systems of support (“MTSS”), and related initiatives. This Agreement is not intended to in any way discredit the commitment, time, expenditures, and efforts made by the District to address these issues, or the District’s goal of refining its student support and discipline system in order to achieve a positive, productive, and safe educational environment that does not negatively impact any group of students disproportionately.
Why did KHSD settle the lawsuit rather than continue to fight and win the case?
Settling this lawsuit in no way means, nor should it be inferred, that KHSD believes it violated any laws or civil rights or that KHSD believes that Plaintiffs’ case was valid or likely to succeed. The decision to settle this lawsuit was largely financial and was made in the best financial interest of KHSD’s students, employees, and the community. Further, KHSD believes the settlement agreement’s terms are consistent with KHSD’s already existing vision and programs related to student behavior and discipline.
Unfortunately, lawsuits are very costly and time consuming. For example, this lawsuit is almost three years old and as of July 2017 it was still questionable whether or not Plaintiffs’ claims were legally sufficient against KHSD. Due to the legal deficiencies in Plaintiffs’ claims and legal filings KHSD has spent nearly three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to file motions with the court to receive a determination as to whether or not Plaintiffs’ even have a legitimate case. Due to these issues, the lawsuit barely progressed and there was much more work to do before the parties would have been ready for a trial. As a result, if the lawsuit were to continue, it was projected that with another year or two of costly discovery, motion work, trial preparation, trial, and resulting attorneys’ fees, the KHSD’s costs were projected at an additional $1 million dollars or more.
It should be noted that under the law, even if KHSD won this case outright, as it believes it would have, KHSD would not have been able to recover any of the attorneys’ fees it had to pay to defend itself in this lawsuit. With this in mind, continuing to spend taxpayer dollars to defend a case for which KHSD could never recover any of the funds spent, even if KHSD won the case, was an unjustifiable use of taxpayer dollars that should be used for the education of students.
The responsibility of the KHSD’s Board of Trustees and administrators is to protect the District and its fiscal resources so as to ensure that students are the District’s top priority and that taxpayer dollars for education are spent on education – not on unnecessary lawsuits and attorneys’ fees. Every month that KHSD continued to defend itself in this lawsuit, thousands of taxpayer dollars were being diverted away from students and education. In order to protect taxpayer dollars, the District decided to settle the case so that no more public funds would be spent on lawsuit costs and attorneys’ fees.
Does settling the lawsuit mean that KHSD lost?
No. KHSD maintains that it has not violated the law or civil rights. Settling the case simply means that KHSD no longer wishes to be compelled to spend any more taxpayer money – meant for education and students – on attorneys’ fees and costs associated with defending against in this litigation. Further, over the last nearly three years, hundreds upon hundreds of hours were spent by KHSD administrators and staff members who had no choice but to spend time assisting with the defense of this lawsuit rather than devoting those hours where they belonged – focused on the education of students. Settling this case not only stopped the financial burden but has freed KHSD staff to return their full attention and time to the education of students.
Why did this lawsuit receive so much media and social media attention?
Allegations of wrongdoing and controversy are considered newsworthy to some, regardless of how factually accurate the accusations are. In lawsuits, sometimes the media and social media are used by a litigant or sympathizers to help their case and turn the tide of public opinion – by publishing subjective letters or opinion articles, taking out advertisements, creating social media pages, or utilizing other media outlets to advance their position. Although KHSD may not always agree with the information disseminated to the public about the District, the KHSD respects the First Amendment. KHSD believes it is the District’s responsibility to provide the public with information that is accurate.
Why has this lawsuit gone on for such a long time?
This lawsuit involved numerous plaintiffs, several education agencies as defendants, tens of thousands of documents, and legal issues that have required considerable time and effort to address. Since the court has not yet made a final determination as to whether or not Defendants’ case was appropriate and could even proceed, it was possible that this lawsuit could have continued for another one to two years at a substantial and unnecessary cost – estimated at an additional $1 million or more – to the District if it did not settle the case now.
With this in mind, KHSD hopes that members of the community will consider that every time a lawsuit is filed against any school district the students, parents, taxpayers, and schools ultimately pay the price. School districts are not “deep pockets” or always covered by insurance. Public schools are not rich. Therefore, continuing to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to defend this case was not in the District’s best interest.
Apart from attorneys’ fees, what else does the settlement agreement cover?
The settlement agreement memorializes efforts related to student discipline and the KHSD’s focus on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (“PBIS”), multi-tiered systems of support (“MTSS”), and related initiatives. It is important to emphasize that the professional development for teachers, staff training, and similar initiatives and practices were things KHSD was already doing, or in the process of doing, before the Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit and/or before the case settled.