From WCVB-TV 5 Boston
September 30, 2016
Watch the report.
For decades, battles over special-needs services have been waged largely in secret, with families having no way of knowing what services have been given to other families.
But that changed last year when the state’s highest court ruled all private settlement agreements between school districts and families with special-needs children are public records, available to anyone.
The man responsible for the change is Mike Champa.
“The private settlement process is like negotiating for a used car,” Champa said. “It's not a healthy process.”
Champa said he saw that firsthand after discovering his daughter had a learning disability – dyslexia – and went to the Weston School District for help.
“We always got pushback from the school, but we sort of worked with them,” he said.
The school department came up with an individualized education program, or IEP, for his daughter. But Champa felt the IEP didn't meet her needs, and asked for her to be placed in a specialized school outside the district.
Then the real battle began.
“Every meeting, we had seemed to become more and more contentious,” he said. “Eventually we got to the point where we said, 'This isn't working. We need information.'”
Champa asked to see what arrangements had been made for other children with disabilities in his school district and was told that was information he was not allowed to have.
“It just didn't make sense to me that the school wasn't willing to share information about the agreements it made with other parents,” he said. “We simply wanted what everybody else was getting.”
Champa took the school to court, arguing private settlement agreements for students with disabilities are public records. Three years and nearly $100,000 in legal bills later he won the case.
In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said the public is entitled to see other families’ settlement agreements as long as names and other private information are removed.
When Champa looked at the agreements, one fact jumped out right away.
“Every agreement is different,” he said.
In Weston, he reviewed 29 settlement agreements and found drastic differences. For example, sometimes the school district paid for 100 percent of tuition and in other cases only 50 percent, with the parents paying the rest, even though federal law entitles students with disabilities to “free appropriate public education.”
He also discovered the school district paid for transportation for some students, but not others.
“It was horrible for me to read settlement after settlement agreement and see how differently kids were being treated,” said Champa.
5 Investigates found another inequity after surveying 10 of the most affluent and 10 of the least affluent communities in the state.
In the most affluent communities, 405 families received private settlement agreements. In the least affluent, only 15, not including Fall River, where the superintendent would not provide the number without a $400 payment for the records.
Terry Alves-Hunter, a Dorchester mother, spent years fighting for special-needs services for her son. She had no idea these private settlement agreements even existed until now.
“It should be out there,” Alves-Hunter said. “They are being paid by our tax dollars. It is up to us to know, not for them to keep it secret.”
Said Champa, “With data, with sunlight comes more information, more transparency, more accountability.”
5 Investigates sat down with three parents of children with disabilities who have fought for years for services -- Mike DiPronio, Jennifer Stahr and George Teixeira.
They all agreed that private settlement agreements for children with special needs are something that school districts wanted to keep secret.
"I have a child with a learning disability that I was concerned about her education," said DiPronio. "I was horrified over what resources it took to get him what he needs."
To these parents, special education in Massachusetts often means secretive special education, with parents kept in the dark about what school districts are providing to students with disabilities.
So in the wake of the 2015 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court making private settlement agreements public, they started a website called shinesunlight.org.
It is a place to post settlement agreements from Massachusetts communities so parents know what school districts are agreeing to pay for, including out of district placements.
"It's literally in hopes of enlightening folks on what's going on in our broken system," Teixeira said.
Still, they said, information is not flowing freely from the districts.
"I'll get some information, but it's overly redacted," DiPronio said.
Added Stahr: "We quickly realized that No. 1, it takes a long time and it's very expensive."
When 5 Investigates tried getting the same information parents would ask for, some schools sent us bills for as little as $45, but others wanted as much as $1,750 and $2,546.
We asked Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, if parents should be having trouble getting their hands on settlement agreements.
"No, no," Scott said. "It's clear our superintendents know what that law says."
Asked if school districts are still trying to keep the information under wraps, Scott said: "Well I'm not sure it's keeping it under wraps. I mean I think this has posed a concern for schools for sure. Is that in the back of their minds? Probably to some extent it is."
For some school districts, the concern with all the private settlement agreements becoming public is that parents will now know exactly what school districts have agreed to pay other students and expect the same for their child.
We asked our three parents about the results of our survey of 10 of the most affluent and 10 of the least affluent communities in the state which found the vast majority of settlement agreements are happening in the wealthier school districts.
"I think what you're finding in disparities is not at all surprising," said Stahl.
And it was no surprise to Tom Scott of the superintendents' association either.
"Money makes a difference in this process, and I hate to say that, but it's a reality," he said. "It's not that the more disadvantaged or poorer communities don't have access. Sometimes they don't know where to find that access."
So what should parents do? Keep fighting to see settlement agreements. They're public after all. And find advocates who can help you.
Below are some resources to get you started.
Special education resources for parents: