A report from California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse tells us: “In fiscal year 2005, three of California’s five largest school districts (listed above) paid $32.8 million in litigation costs – $8.0 million in verdicts and settlements and $24.8 million to outside counsel.”
I wish the report could have been more persuasive on the costs of litigation: when the unwritten math is done, Los Angeles Unified School District spent less than $40/student on legal costs in FY 2005, which is just under 1% of their budget. (Between 2002 and 2005, the average was $70/student/year, and a little less than 2% of the budget.) Is that too much? Relatively little? I’m hard-pressed to say (school officials do do actionable things that get themselves legitimately sued), and the report does not give us a baseline. Did something change to cause costs to go down by over 60% between 2002 and 2005, or was 2002 (or 2005) an outlier? The report does not indicate. Why does Elk Grove’s number include insurance costs and LAUSD’s doesn’t? (Is the report understating liability expense?)
Other data in the report are more interesting and troubling: “A 2004 study by Harris Interactive revealed that more than half of educators are concerned about the risks of legal challenges in their jobs and most educators feel the current legal climate has resulted in ‘defensive teaching,’” and a sizable majority feel that their own ability to do the job has been adversely affected by liability fears. And there is an extensive report of a lawsuit against a Napa school district dress code that led the school district to change the policy rather than spend a small fortune defending it in court—though that is a consequence more of federal courts’ meddling in school administration on purportedly constitutional grounds (Nov. 2003) than of anything state legislative action can do, if a reminder that presidential judicial appointments really matter.