Viewpoints: The cost of abusive lawsuits is taking a big bite out of California’s classrooms

Although not the largest city in California, Sacramento is home to two of the state’s largest school districts. More than 100,000 kids combined are in Elk Grove Unified and Sacramento City Unified. But with this large size comes an even larger number – the costs of lawsuits.

School districts in Sacramento are facing some of the biggest budget challenges, but always have to take into account the cost of litigation. No school board meeting or school funding conversation happens without litigation costs in the background. When budgets get slashed, this is always the line item that cannot be changed.

As a school board member, I know that there will always be legitimate lawsuits involving school districts, so some litigation costs should be expected every year.

However, dishonest attorneys and litigants view school district budgets as an unlimited fund and file abusive lawsuits seeking a quick payday. California’s civil justice system allows plaintiffs and their attorneys to drag out lawsuits, increasing the probability that districts will choose to settle, providing a taxpayer-funded payout to those who abuse the law for their personal profit. As a result, school districts are struggling to cover their litigation costs while trying to provide the best environment for students.

California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse released a report Monday shedding light on this issue, and the results were astounding.

The report found that from 2010-11 through 2012-13, 12 districts spent more than $125 million on litigation combined, including $96 million on outside counsel and $29.4 million on verdicts and settlements.

For example, in 2010, Elk Grove Unified was on the state’s fiscal early warning list for the second year in a row, putting it one step away from a state takeover. That year, the district spent more than $1.5 million on verdicts, settlement and outside counsel. One of the cuts that the district was forced to make was eliminating librarians, saving $1.1 million. Wouldn’t the district have been better off if it could have used the $1.5 million spent on litigation to keep its librarians?

Twin Rivers Unified School District is still facing an exorbitant amount of legal fees. As of August 2012, the district was facing two bills that totaled $1.3 million just in legal fees, not the awards or settlements. Since then, the district has been working to get the fees under control, but it has had to put other projects on hold.

When these types of cuts and costly expenditures happen, school districts are forced to make changes that impact teachers and students. With every program cut, a staff member or teacher loses a job, and students lose the opportunity to participate in those programs.

It is up to all of us to encourage our legislators to implement laws that will help address the legal abuse that school districts face. All Californians can make a difference, but in the state capital, Sacramentans have the chance to have their voices heard the loudest. Join me in advocating for reform to California’s legal system so that school budgets are spent in the classroom, not the courtroom.