Eric Paul Zamora/The Fresno Bee Donell Stiers reviews documents related to her son's expulsion from Fresno Unified School District.
Fresno Unified School District Superintendent Michael Hanson said he never told a special education student's parent that he would have the district pay his legal fees if he fired his attorney.
Hanson spoke to California Watch on May 4 – the day it published a story about the district's ongoing dispute with the student's family – after declining repeated requests for comment for more than a month.
Hanson zeroed in on a claim made in a court declaration by Pablo Lopez, a longtime Fresno Bee reporter, that in August, while Lopez's son was pending expulsion, Hanson offered a deal: The district would pay Lopez's legal fees if Lopez fired the attorney he hired to handle a special education complaint against the district. The family said it declined the offer.
"Never did I say – I don't think I would even use the phrase – 'to fire your attorney,'" Hanson said. "There was not, 'You drop this, fire the attorney and we'll do that.'"
On May 4, Hanson said in a letter [PDF] he e-mailed to colleagues and also posted to the district's website that the California Watch story "paints a very inaccurate picture of a situation that the District has been trying to resolve as fairly as possible for well over a year now."
Lopez and his wife, Donell Stiers, have been fighting Fresno Unified since their son, a former foster child who is now 15 years old, was recommended for expulsion last May. Their dispute has escalated from the district to the county board of education and now into two separate-but-related legal battles – one between the district and the board of education and another between the district and the family.
Hanson said Lopez initiated discussion of legal fees and also their August meeting, which occurred in Hanson's white pickup truck in the Bullard High School parking lot the Friday before the school year began.
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He said the meeting, whose location he called "a matter of convenience" because it allowed him to work while watching his son's football practice, "was a result of repeated requests that he (Lopez) made to me and our school district to try to reach some resolution before things ended up, frankly, where we are now."
Lopez said yesterday that neither he nor Stiers ever asked to meet with Hanson. The superintendent called him at the Fresno Bee newsroom to ask for a meeting and insisted the context was "father-to-father, not superintendent-to-reporter," Lopez said.
Hanson said he is "regularly in conversations with people parent-to-parent. … That's the nature of being an educator."
"I think it's always best to try to meet informally to try to resolve things. It's the way we should work," he said. "That's why we have a legal process if we can't, but we always encourage our folks to reach resolution at the lowest possible level."
Hanson said he was allowed to break his silence about the district's dispute with Lopez and Stiers after a court order – dated April 26 but that district officials said they were notified of on May 3 – denied the district's motion to seal court records.
The dispute has risen to a level that Hanson said is rare for Fresno Unified. The district, which served more than 7,500 special education students in 2010-11, has been involved in three due process cases over the last five years, he said.
But a California Watch review of Office of Administrative Hearings records found 33 student-filed due process complaints against Fresno Unified since July 2007. Three of those complaints were resolved by an administrative law judge.
The district's expulsion of Lopez and Stiers' son has been challenged in two venues – the county board of education and a due process complaint filed in the state Office of Administrative Hearings. Last month, a due process decision by an administrative law judge invalidated the district's manifestation determination review – the disciplinary hearing that allowed the district to expel the couple's son.
When California Watch asked Hanson why the district has challenged in court a county board of education order overturning the expulsion, an attorney for the district, Mary Beth de Goede, responded by citing its court filings.
"The District has been forced to conclude that the County Board abused its discretion, and failed and refused to perform its legal duty … by improperly considering information outside the record in reaching its decision in this case," Fresno Unified wrote in its court challenge. "Contrary to its legal obligations, the County Board failed to set forth factual findings to bridge the analytical gap between the record under appeal and its Order."
Fresno Unified's challenge to the board's decision is pending.
A second hearing on the family's due process complaint is scheduled to begin this month. It will determine whether, after their son's misconduct last year, Fresno Unified should have conducted a functional behavioral assessment, which could have established a support plan to address behavioral problems.
The hearing will also determine whether the district failed to provide their son a free appropriate public education, as guaranteed by federal special education law, and now owes him compensatory education. The parents said Fresno Unified kept their son out of school and without independent study for five months while his expulsion was pending and even after the school board ordered that he attend a new school in the district.
"It's unfortunate that in trying to reach a resolution that's best for a student and family that we end up here almost a year later in legal entanglements," Hanson said. "That's not our practice, and we don't find ourselves here all but very infrequently."