School Climate & Safety

Calif. Governor Blames Districts For Poor Conditions

By Catherine Gewertz — January 10, 2001 5 min read
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Stung by a highly publicized lawsuit accusing California of failing to provide safe classrooms and qualified teachers to some students, Gov. Gray Davis’ administration has launched an aggressive counterattack that seeks to hold local districts responsible for poor school conditions.

In documents filed in San Francisco Superior Court last month, the Democratic governor’s lawyers attempted to shift responsibility for outdated textbooks, leaky roofs, unqualified teachers, and other problems onto the districts.

The state’s stance, which legal experts characterized as unusual, is outlined in a cross complaint, a lawsuit the state filed in response to the earlier suit by civil rights groups. That action, filed last May, claimed the state had shirked its duty under the California constitution to provide a free and equal education to students in 18 schools. It since has grown to include scores of students in 18 districts. (“Calif. Schools Lack Basics, Suit Alleges,” May 24, 2000.)

The lawsuit scolded the state for failing to provide textbooks for students, forcing them to soil themselves because restrooms were locked, and tolerating janitors who cleaned cafeteria tables with mops. The suit contends those conditions exist mainly at schools populated overwhelmingly by poor and minority students. In at least 100 schools, the suit alleged, more than half the teachers lack full teaching credentials.

Kerry L. Mazzoni, the new secretary of education appointed by Mr. Davis, said that the districts should not blame the state for shoddy classrooms because California has poured billions of dollars into education since Mr. Davis took office two years ago.

“It all goes back to local control,” she said in an interview. “If the schools don’t have the conditions that should exist, they should hold the local school boards accountable. We cannot have the governor out in our local school districts making sure there is toilet paper in all the bathrooms.”

Turning the Tables

Legal experts said it is not uncommon for a state to shift blame to districts in such educational adequacy lawsuits, but they said it is unusual to do so by filing suit.

Kevin J. Lanigan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson, which has pressed educational adequacy lawsuits on behalf of students in Minnesota and North Carolina. He said that filing a cross complaint— instead of simply responding to the allegations in the original lawsuit—gives the state greater access to information about how the districts are using their money. It can then use that information to turn the tables in a legal blame game.

“A state can raise a serious question as to whether it may well be true that the district really does have adequate means to address these issues and is just doing a bad job,” he said. “It can substantially change the dynamic of the case and put the school districts on trial.”

In most cases where courts have examined the respective roles of districts and the state on such issues, Mr. Lanigan said, they have held that the state has the ultimate responsibility to provide the education guaranteed by the state constitution.

Some longtime observers compared Mr. Davis’ legal strategy to drawing a line in the sand. Several critics saw his move as that of a governor who will brook no opposition. Others suggested that Mr. Davis was running a political risk with a very public stand disclaiming responsibility for school conditions.

Johanna VanderMolen, the superintendent of the 7,800-student Campbell, Calif., school district, said the governor’s suit places too much blame for problems on schools. As districts’ discretionary funding has dropped, she said, so has their ability to manage problems like those outlined in the suit.

“We need to have the state work together with us, as a team, saying that as the people that educate children, we need to do a better job,” she said. “And the bottom-line truth is, we need more money.”

Kerry L. Mazzoni

But Ms. Mazzoni said she expected hearty public support for the governor’s stance because it’s a position that defends strong local control and accountability. Others, too, expressed sympathy for the governor’s position.

“A lot of governors have invested money in the schools, which equals support, and at some point in time they feel that the local districts also have a responsibility here,” said Dane Linn, the director of the education division of the National Governors’ Association. “Governor Davis could well be frustrated, thinking, ‘I’ve invested millions—at what point is it enough?’ ”

Pointing Fingers

Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who specializes in public policy, said that by hiring a leading private law firm to press its case, the state had “called out the most vociferous legal dogs it can find.”

“It sends a message that the state is not going to be more proactive on these matters than it has been in the past, is not going to view its role as doing inspections of schools, but instead jawbone the local officials into doing it,” he said.

But even though Mr. Kirst agrees that California officials have a legitimate concern that taking on the role of inspector could swell the state bureaucracy several-fold, he contends that the state must accept some oversight responsibility for school conditions because it controls 80 percent of public school funding.

Michael A. Jacobs, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing the students in the original lawsuit, said it was lamentable that Mr. Davis had shifted blame to districts instead of discussing what the several California ACLU chapters involved in the lawsuit want most: a new oversight system.

“His response shows that the heart of our claim is dead-on—that the state doesn’t have a mechanism for knowing what is going on and for correcting problems that arise,” Mr. Jacobs said.

He plans to ask the court Feb. 1 to certify the suit, filed on behalf of more than 60 students, as a class action representing all students affected by the state’s alleged failures, a potentially significant expansion in scope.

As the suit heats up, one person close to the proceedings warned that it could get ugly. “This lawsuit has some horrendous allegations and finger-pointing,” said the source, who asked not to be named. “If it gets down and dirty, it’ll get real down and dirty.”

To avert that, officials with the California School Boards Association have been meeting with the parties in an attempt to broker a settlement.

“What’s important is that kids get educated,” said Richard L. Hamilton, the group’s associate general counsel. “And it doesn’t seem to us that having the state and the school districts battling over these kinds of issues is the best way to resolve those issues.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Calif. Governor Blames Districts For Poor Conditions

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