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Court monitor attacks LAUSD’s efforts to comply with ADA

Craig Clough | November 19, 2015

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SpecialEdA court-appointed monitor of LA Unified’s special education has harshly criticized the district for a failure to bring its facilities into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

In the latest annual report, Independent Monitor David Rostetter accused LA Unified and its Facilities Services Division of mismanagement, a lack of clear direction, inaction, failing to act in good faith, withholding information and expending energy on circumventing its legal obligations.

“This behavior is unconscionable,” Rostetter wrote. “The lack of accountability for this performance and complete disregard for providing accessibility at its schools, programs, and services can no longer be overlooked.”

He added, “The approach senior leadership have taken to comply with (the ADA) lacks consideration and regard for the civil rights of individuals with disabilities.”

While Rostetter praised the district for progress in other areas, his blistering critique suggested that the district has a long way to go toward meeting the requirements of the ADA.

The district’s Chief Facilities Executive, Mark Hovatter, did not respond directly to the report’s criticisms.

“I can’t really speak to that,” he told LA School Report. “What I can say is the laws of compliance are very complex and specialized and some people misinterpret them or just don’t understand them. We’re all getting much smarter to comply with it.”

LA Unified has been under federal court oversight since 1996 as a result of a class action lawsuit that accused it of non-compliance with special education laws. As part of the settlement, an independent monitor was appointed in 2003 to oversee the district’s compliance with what is known as the Modified Consent Decree (MCD).

The original deadline set for the district to meet its obligations and be disengaged from court oversight was 2006.

“Despite a three-year time frame and outcomes with modest targets that never increased, the District continues to require oversight and monitoring,” Rostetter wrote.

While all of LA Unified’s facilities do not need to be in full ADA compliance for disengagement, it needs to have a clear “transition plan” demonstrating it is capable of doing so. The district has met 17 of the 18 educational and administrative outcomes required in the consent decree, but it still has facilities issues and others problems, such as making its MiSiS computer system fully operational. (See following story.)

Rostetter took over as independent monitor 18 months ago after the death of a predecessor, Frederick Weintraub, who had been serving in the role since 2005. Rostetter authored last year’s report but much of its was based on Weintraub’s work. The most recent reports, for 2013 and 2014, lacked the severe criticisms of this year’s.

“It’s just been in this last annual report that most significantly had the harsh language,” said Sharyn Howell, the district’s associate superintendent of the Division of Special Education.

Under the ADA, public buildings are not immediately required to be updated, but when any significant renovations are made, the entire building must be upgraded to grant full access for disabled individuals. Any new buildings must also be constructed to be ADA compliant.

The district is also required by law to grant immediate and full access to all educational programs for disabled students. For example, if a school has three computer labs, at least one must be handicap accessible. But the district has failed to meet these requirements.

“The MCD is in its 12th year, and the District still does not have a transition plan that meets the intent or letter of the law,” the report states.

One of the reasons the district has trouble with the ADA is a lack of money. LA Unified is in need of $40 billion to modernize its campuses and has struggled to make ADA requirements a priority. Hundreds of buildings were constructed long before the ADA regulations became law. However, in October the school board approved the reallocation of $600 million dollars for ADA compliance within 10 years. Hovatter said that roughly 600 buildings will need renovations at a cost of around $1 million each.

Rostetter said the 10-year plan was acceptable and that “we are extremely pleased (Superintendent Ramon Cortines) aggressively went after that money.”

Despite high praise for Cortines and Howell, Rostetter said the district’s overall senior leadership has lacked a long-term commitment to the MCD.

“Since the MCD’s inception, the (facilities division) has engaged in behaviors that undermine its credibility. Misrepresentations, withholding of information and documents, and expending of energy on circumventing its obligations are not new. The (Office of the General Council) and District’s posture and defense of officials who engage in these behaviors is disappointing,” the report states.

Hovatter, who has been in his role for three years, said now that the $600 million has been allocated, he expects to have a full transition plan approved by the board soon and, as a result, a more positive independent monitor report next year.

“We had been working with (the previous independent monitor) for several years, and we were marching in a certain direction, and we thought everyone was happy,” Hovatter said. “I told my boss that the independent monitor used to call us the model for other districts to follow. The current independent monitor is not happy, but I’m sure in due time he will also be calling us the model that other districts would follow.”

Rostetter said there was simply no excuse for a lack of ADA compliance.

“The ADA was passed in 1990. New York City had its transition plan in effect by 1998,” he said.

He pointed out that his office discovered several years ago that LA Unified constructed more than 80 buildings that were not ADA compliant. The district then had to spend millions bringing them up to code.

“This district has built many new buildings over the last 20 years that have been non-compliant. And it has done virtually nothing in its existing buildings to develop surveys and transition plans complying with ADA that would lead to program access,” he said. “No matter how difficult the task is, doing absolutely nothing and building buildings that are non-compliant, is essentially ridiculous. And that is why the report is the way it is.”

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