As Californians prepare to send their children back to school, local school districts are preparing to welcome students, teachers, and staff back into the classroom. In recent years, however, high litigation costs have contributed to cutbacks in school budgets placing added pressure on the budgets of school districts, parents and teachers.
California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has just released its 2014 School Litigation Report, which analyzed the litigation costs to 12 districts for fiscal years 2010-2011 through 2012-2013. The report found that the districts combined spent more than $125.6 million on litigation, spending $96.1 million on outside counsel, and $29.4 million on verdicts and settlements. The report can be read here.
That’s $125 million that districts spent on litigation instead of providing their students an education. Worse, because the districts examined account for less than 20 percent of the total enrollment of California’s K-12 public school districts, the total economic impact of litigation to the state’s education system is likely much higher than the cost reported here.
While funding for schools has improved somewhat since the recession, limited funding continues to force school districts to examine which programs and personnel are absolutely essential and allocate funding accordingly. These constraints often require cutting libraries, popular arts programs, or after-school sports programs. The budget cuts have also forced parents to bear more of the cost of public education, from school supplies to paying for athletic and art programs.
With schools already facing budget crunches, high litigation costs only siphon more money away from classrooms and other programs. Although schools cannot completely eliminate litigation costs, the high amount spent by some districts is a problem.
Too often, however, unscrupulous attorneys and litigants view school district budgets as a coffer to be raided, and file abusive lawsuits against school districts seeking a quick payday. The rules governing California’s civil justice system increases the probability that school districts will be forced to settle these cases, providing a taxpayer-funded payout to those who abuse the law for their personal profit.
It’s no coincidence that a recent survey from the Institute for Legal Reform ranked California’s legal climate fourth worst in the nation for lawsuit fairness. In many ways, California’s civil justice system not only allows, but even incentivizes abusive litigation.
This study makes it clear that California must reform its civil justice system. Until reforms are passed, school districts will continue to be forced to spend tax dollars fighting abusive litigation rather than educating students.