WAAY 31’s I-Team investigation gets to the bottom of costly complaints against Huntsville City Schools. The complaints center around education programs for students with special needs.
Dr. Matt Akin
Parents say HCS is too quick to fight them, even lawyer up, instead of putting special ed students first.
Today, school superintendent Dr. Matt Akin told WAAY 31 he will leave to head up the new Gulf Shores school district. As of now, though, Akin is still in charge at Huntsville City Schools.
WAAY 31 talked with Akin to get his insight on what some consider a broken special ed system at HCS.
We asked him about those costly complaints from parents, how he sizes up Huntsville’s special education program and whether it needs change.
Akin admits there’s room for improvement.
"I'm sure we have problems whether it's special ed, we have problems in all areas -- it's a large district -- that we want to work on," superintendent Matt Akin told WAAY 31.
He insists at Huntsville City Schools, the status quo isn’t good enough anymore.
“The answer can't be 'Well, this is the way we've always done it.' Let's take another look and make sure whatever way is getting the most efficient use of public tax dollars," Akin said.
One aspect of Dr. Akin’s job is addressing concerns from parents.
Parents like Catherine George have long-standing complaints about the district’s special ed program.
"It's been a long drawn out battle," George told WAAY 31.
George complains HCS fails to properly serve students with special needs, stalling while the district battles parents in and out of court.
Students are the ones suffering.
"Getting them the help they need and getting them the resources there is very difficult especially when the school system drags it out as long as they can," George said.
Akin says if that’s happening, it needs to stop.
"It's not my philosophy and I don't want it to be anyone's philosophy that we're going to drag things out because ultimately what we want is to do what's right and we want to serve kids,” Akin explained.
Fighting parents costs the district money. It’s cash that could go to education.
"All this money we're spending on court fees, on attorney fees, they could be putting toward the children,” George told us.
"Usually, if there's an attorney involved in IEP, then there's been some type of complaint,” Akin said.
Those complaints are about individualized education programs.
IEPs are at the core of conflicts between HCS and parents of special needs children.
"We've had a number of cases, a number of complaints. But, our goal is to quickly do what's right and come to an agreement about how to best serve kids,” the superintendent said.
Lanier, Ford, Shaver & Payne is the law firm that represents Huntsville City Schools.
Attorney J.R. Brooks with Lanier Ford told WAAY 31 the school district serves nearly 3,000 students with IEPs.
Fighting parents' IEP complaints gets expensive. The school board is even on the hook for parents' attorney fees when Lanier Ford loses. One big example: Brooks confirmed a large unpublished legal defeat that WAAY 31 uncovered.
Huntsville City Schools paid more than $217-thousand in one parent’s legal fees.
The parent appealed all the way to the Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
That high-dollar defeat happened before Dr. Akin took the helm at the school board.
"Anytime we're spending -- and no offense to attorneys or to our attorneys -- but, I would much rather in any case be spending money directly on the classroom as opposed to attorneys,” Akin told us.
There are attorney fighting on both sides.
“The district has an obligation to evaluate, identify and offer a program for every single child within the school district’s jurisdiction,” attorney Deborah Mattison told WAAY 31. Mattison focuses on special education law.
Based in Birmingam, Mattison represents several Huntsville parents.
“District staff would do well to listen to parents’ concerns and to listen more than they talk,” Mattison told us. “Parents come to me because they feel like their concerns have not been heard by the district.”
WAAY 31 wanted to know how other school systems keep complaints from ever happening in the first place.
”Bedside manner – like doctors, you know, doctors who are friendly and do a good job usually don’t get sued for medical malpractice,” attorney James Irby told WAAY 31.
From his office in Florence, Irby advises districts like Lauderdale County and Decatur to work with parents.
He says school districts “need to be aware of the child’s IEP, need to be aware of what’s in there and what they’re supposed to be doing and be positive and proactive about doing so.”
Irby explains it comes down to following federal law. “It’s mainly a matter of being proactive in making sure that we’re providing what we need to provide for the students who are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”
Back in Huntsville, we find that constant complaint we’ve heard over and over: parents often feel more like adversaries than partners.
"The issue with Huntsville City Schools is that they do not include you,” Catherine George pointed out.
That’s a problem Akin started working to correct.
"One of the things that we've started just in the last several months in Special Ed is a parent involvement or a parent advisory committee,” Dr. Akin said. “I'm not sure if all parents are aware of that. We asked parents to participate.”