Districts Wonder If A.D.A. Efforts Will Satisfy Law

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No one is going to call Fairfax County, Va., a slacker when it comes to providing people with disabilities access to schools.

At least, that is the hope of school officials there who have dedicated a construction fund solely to meeting the needs of the disabled. Should a student in a wheelchair need to use a second-floor laboratory, for example, the officials say they will tap that fund and zap--within 45 days, there will be an elevator.

The Fairfax County school district's "quick response" fund is part of its strategy for meeting its obligations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 federal civil-rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Schools nationwide are expected to spend $6 billion in the next few years increasing accessibility to their programs.

But Fairfax County and thousands of other districts will spend this money knowing little about whether their plans will actually bring them into compliance with the law. Standards for what a school must do to meet the law's requirements will not be set until A.D.A.-based discrimination cases wind through the courts and define some of the law's broad language, legal experts say.

Until then, many school officials will be left wondering whether they have done enough, too little, or even too much under the law.

A Blessing and a Curse

Much of the uncertainty results from the flexibility the law grants public entities in their efforts to comply with it. While the A.D.A. requires local governments to make new buildings accessible to people with disabilities, it does not mandate that old structures be upgraded.

Rather, schools must insure that all programs are available to the disabled. By shuffling programs and space, a district might avoid significant facilities renovations altogether.

That flexibility is both a blessing and a curse, school lawyers and facilities consultants say. For example, the law requires that public entities make "reasonable accommodations" for individuals with disabilities.

But "what's 'reasonable' in one district may not be 'reasonable' in another," said Tony J. Wall, the executive director of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Also, the law exempts structural renovations that would place an undue burden on a public entity. But in the case of a financially strapped school district, the law is not clear on whether states or municipalities should step in and pick up the cost of needed facilities work, school lawyers say.

And even districts that have already met the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973--which bars discrimination against the disabled in federally financed programs--cannot address A.D.A. concerns overnight, experts say.

Given the A.D.A.'s latitude, schools have taken different routes in their efforts to meet its bottom line. In some cases, such as Orange County, Fla., cost concerns dictated strategy.

There, district officials estimated that the cost of renovating the 140 school buildings would top $50 million. But with only $1.2 million in state construction aid available, officials instead plan over the next two years to create routes to and through schools that will make them accessible to the disabled.

In Milwaukee, district officials facing an estimated $36 million price tag for renovating all 153 buildings opted instead to refit only the 104 buildings deemed necessary to insure students with disabilities access to all programs. This plan could force the district to relocate some programs, but it will save about $16 million.

Key Deadline

In the 131,000-student Fairfax County district, meanwhile, school officials eventually plan to make all the district's 200 buildings completely accessible through a capital-construction program that renovates each school every 20 or 25 years. But eliminating all accessibility barriers in one sweep was out of the question, said Alton C. Hlavin, the assistant superintendent for facilities services.

Instead, Fairfax created its quick-response fund to react to the needs of the disabled and keep the district out of court.

"We have 21 million square feet," Mr. Hlavin said. "Is there something out there that may jump out and go 'boo'? Maybe. My response is, if something jumps out, we'll take care of it."

The likelihood of lawsuits weighed heavily upon some districts in choosing their response to the A.D.A.

The law gave local governments a Jan. 26 deadline to complete any renovations needed. Those that did not meet that deadline could now be targets for legal action by individuals or the U.S. Justice Department, experts on the law say.

Justice officials have "just been waiting for the 26th to pass," Dolores M. Barrows, the A.D.A. coordinator for the city of Long Beach, Calif., and the president of the Association of A.D.A. Coordinators, said recently. "Then the action will start."

Many small districts with no disabled students are gambling that they will not get sued and are doing nothing, school consultants report. Cindy L. Becker, an Austin, Tex., lawyer who specializes in education issues, said she was recently approached by officials from a district with a second-floor library that was inaccessible to people with disabilities.

"They said, 'We'll just carry people to the second floor in their wheelchair,"' she said.

In Milwaukee, officials rejected the idea of doing nothing to their facilities in part because of the threat of a Justice Department lawsuit, said Edward M. McMilin, the facilities planner for the 93,000-student district.

"A big, urban district like ours could be used to send a message," he said. "They would pursue a complaint against us vigorously."

Spending Too Much?

Some districts are finding it hard to raise the money to pay for A.D.A. work. Voters in Belmont, N.H., have four times rejected approval of a $7 million bond issue that includes construction funds related to the law. The district will try again this month.

But many disability-rights advocates have little sympathy for districts that complain that the costs of meeting the law's provisions are prohibitive.

Some experts say many districts brought the problem down on themselves. The A.D.A.-related costs are high in those districts because they ignored previous federal laws requiring accessibility, notably Section 504.

"Many schools never really did anything on 504," said Ronald F. Hanson, who has surveyed school accessibility in Maine. "If you asked them for their 504 surveys today, they would have trouble digging them up."

In addition, confusion about the A.D.A.'s requirements may have led some schools to overestimate the work needed, further inflating the projected costs.

"There are systems and cities talking about spending millions and millions when they don't have to," said Robert L. Duston, a Washington lawyer who consults with colleges, universities, and school districts.

The A.D.A. requires that all local government programs--not buildings--be accessible. Many public entities are not thinking strategically about how they can shuffle programs to avoid construction, Mr. Duston said.

The mistake could be magnified if districts prepared the transition plans required by the law and later shelved them because of the high costs, Mr. Duston warned. As of Jan. 26, transitions plans became legally binding documents that, if not followed, can be used to prove a district's noncompliance with the A.D.A., he said.

Few Court Challenges

So far, only a handful of school districts are headed to court. A student at Cony High School in Augusta, Me., and her parents sued the city's 3,000-student district in January. They charge that much of the school's facilities are inaccessible and that a renovation of the school in the 1980's ignored federal and state laws on accessibility that predate the A.D.A.

"They made it a sparkling new facility," said Sharon G. Miller, the student's lawyer. "But they made it a sparkling new facility that is not accessible."

Cony High has not yet complied with the A.D.A., district officials admitted. The law required local governments to prepare transition plans three years ago, but Augusta has yet to complete its plan, Superintendent N. Graham Nye said last month.

The school has responded to many of the student's concerns. But the changes that would allow the girl to function independently in the school might require building a new school on a new site, Mr. Nye contended.

"We feel that we have done what we can within our limitations," he said. "I guess the question is, are we able to provide her the best education, or do we provide an adequate education?"

Vol. 14, Issue 23

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