By JOHN LATIMER
The Lebanon school board on Monday night unanimously agreed to settle a two-year-old lawsuit involving the district’s truancy policy and accusations that it excessively fined parents of minority students with multiple unexcused absences.
The agreement does not require the district to admit any wrongdoing but will hold it accountable for repaying $108,000 in truancy fines it collected between 2004 and 2009.
The settlement will also require the school to pay the $147,000 in legal fees incurred by the Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center, which in January 2011 joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in filing a federal lawsuit on behalf of four parents who claimed fines for their truant children far exceeded the $300 fine limit.
The lawsuit originated with claims that the district was unfairly targeting minority families and fining them above the $300 maximum, including one instance in which a family was fined $9,000.
The lawsuit eventually expanded into a class-action suit involving more than 170 parents and legal guardians.
After the school board’s vote, Bartley said she was pleased to put the issue behind the district and noted the lawsuit’s original claims that the district was discriminating against minorities were eventually proven unfounded.
“The first two years we had to do an awful lot of work with the (U.S. Department of Education’s) Office for Civil Rights, and it showed that there was nothing that was about
discrimination,” she said. “There wasn’t anything about discrimination. They couldn’t find anything about discrimination, and then it just took a turn about reducing fines, which we didn’t have anything to do with.”The district’s attempt to be removed from the lawsuit on the grounds that the fines are set by the magisterial district judge was unsuccessful.
The district’s decision to settle follows November’s pre-trial ruling in favor of the plaintiffs by Chief Judge Yvette Kane of the U.S. Middle District Court of Pennsylvania. At that time, Kane determined the district must repay fines it collected because it had been “unjustly enriched.”
Michael Churchill, lead attorney in the case for the Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center, said he was pleased with the settlement. There were no punitive damages, he explained, because that was never the intent of the lawsuit.
“This settlement allows the parties to avoid the expense of that trial and for the class members to get everything they had asked for in the complaint without any further delay,” he said.
During the course of the lawsuit, Churchill said, another $325,000 in outstanding fines were rescinded by the local magisterial district court before being collected.
“Altogether the case resulted in savings of $430,000 in unjust fines,” he said.
Churchill praised the efforts of Letitia Fuentes Keith, president of the Lebanon Chapter of the NAACP, and local civil-rights advocate Bill Dumas for their efforts in bringing the practice to light.
“The community owes Bill Dumas, Letitia Fuentes Keith and the NAACP its thanks for saving parents from over $430,000 in illegal fines,” Churchill said. “It was their persistence which ended the harsh punitive truancy fines.”
In a news release issued by the Law Center on Monday afternoon, Churchill said the fine amounts the district are receiving are down significantly compared to where they were before the lawsuit. But it continues to have an aggressive truancy policy and uses truancy fines “as a first resort rather than a last resort.”
Bartley denied Churchill’s characterization of the district’s policy.
“We have truancy elimination plans,” she said. “We meet with students. We notify parents in advance. We send out one-day letters. If there is an absence without an excuse, we automatically do that. But we don’t let it go on forever.”
The settlement now moves to federal court for Kane’s approval. If she approves it, as expected, members in the class action will then have six months to submit claims.
The district will be responsible for finding any members who may have moved. Those notification and processing fees may push the district’s total settlement cost to about $265,000, Bartley said.
That figure does not include another $30,000 the district paid in legal expenses to the Bethlehem law firm of King, Spry, Herman, Freund & Faul.
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