Formed by superintendents of the county’s 28 school districts, the alliance grew from deep resistance to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is intended to help students with various developmental handicaps receive a free and appropriate public education.
Because the federal government never lived up to its original goal for funding special education, school districts became increasingly alarmed as they spent more general fund dollars to meet growing family requests for assistance.
When launching the alliance in 2005, one superintendent in a Los Angeles Times article called the alliance “a brotherhood." Another superintendent claimed they were “getting clobbered” by families, who felt school districts were like a “goose laying the golden egg” to be tapped at will.
Today, Ecker describes the agency’s goals as aiding districts with legal costs, professional development training for district staffs and lobbying of state and federal officials either for more money or changes in law.
In particular, the lobbying efforts are for “relieving districts of onerous requirements for serving children with special education needs,” said Ecker.
The alliance also uses top-notch professionals to train community advisory committees, which are required by state law to reduce strife between school district officials and families.
But even this aspect of the alliance's mission has generated controversy.
While these committees can and do provide some assistance, interviews show they also can struggle to meet the challenge. Their memberships can be politicized, for instance, by those appointed, who then pay lip service to resolution efforts, say families.
For example, a trustee praised the committee in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District as substantially effective, but Poita A. Cernius, a parent who has dealt with the committee for 14 years, called it "a squawk box for district administrators.”
Newport-Mesa Unified’s committee didn’t respond to interview requests.
How the Alliance Operates
The alliance meets infrequently and irregularly at the Orange County Department of Education building in Costa Mesa. For a quorum, it needs but three superintendents from the 28 districts, who are joined by school district defense attorneys and other school officials.
Ronald D. Wenkart, general counsel for the county education department, and Lysa M. Saltzman, an attorney in Wenkart's office, have aided the alliance. As staff,the alliance funds a single consultant, who officials said keeps some of the organization's records at her home.
Each Orange County school district typically is assessed 20 and 50 cents per student per year to fund the alliance's operations. The annual assessment, however, isn’t always levied. This year the alliance has approximately $425,000 on hand, according to documents.
In its effort, the alliance helps districts fight families with children with issues that include developmental disorders like autism, traumatic brain injuries and disabled foster children being aided by guardians. In any given year, the alliance might by helping defend against up to five lawsuits.
The largest single category in the alliance's annual budget is for litigation support for districts, budgeted this year for at least $75,000. The agency’s lobbyist costs $12,000. The alliance projects expenditures of $200,000 in 2012.
In every case, reports show, the alliance took a position against a family rather than supporting one.
Beyond its efforts locally, the alliance has sought to aid the filing friend-of-the-court or amicus curiae briefs with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. It specifically selects cases that might win precedent-setting rulings in favor of school districts.