May a School District Pursue Parents for “Stayput Costs” in a Court Case Where the District Has Prevailed in Part?

Our firm recently received a favorable Federal court decision in the case Aaron M. v. Joseph Yomtoob and Hawthorn School District No. 73,  40 IDELR 65 (Ill. 2003), which involved a school district attempting to obtain reimbursement from the parents of a child with Autism for transportation costs paid during a “stay-put” period.

The case began on November 27, 1999, when the Aaron’s parents filed for due process against District 73 in order to secure payment for 12 trips per year to visit their son who attended the Boston Higashi residential school in Randolph, Massachusetts.  Until 1999, the school district had fully funded the 12 trips per year, based on Aaron’s parents’ position that the 12 trips were required as part of Aaron’s program at the school. At Aaron’s November 19, 1999 IEP meeting, District 73 cut the number of trips they would reimburse from 12 to 6. When the parents filed for due process, IDEA’s “stay put” provision was invoked, which mandated the district to continue to fund the 12 trips as provided in Aaron’s previously-agreed upon IEP.

In August 2000, the hearing officer assigned to the case found in favor of the school district, and the parents appealed the decision to Federal court. The lawsuit automatically continued the “stay put” provision, and the district therefore continued to pay for Aaron’s 12 trips per year during the pendency of the Federal case. The case was delayed for several years, and in January 2003, the Federal court judge, Rebecca Pallmeyer, suggested that the issue was now moot because the responsibility for Aaron’s education had recently transferred to his high school district. District 73 then filed a somewhat draconian motion in the federal court requesting an order that the parents reimburse the money paid by the district for the extra six trips per year during the “stay put” period, which totaled $13,348.74.

In our response to the district’s motion for reimbursement, we argued that the “stay put” provision was part of the IDEA as a procedural safeguard to benefit parents and the child during litigation. If the judge were to grant reimbursement of monies paid by the district for transportation under “stay put,” it would open the door for other judges to order reimbursement in other special education cases, including not only money paid for transportation costs, but money paid for private special education placements and other services as well. We felt that we could not allow this to happen.

On November 28, 2003, Judge Pallmeyer ruled in favor of the parents regarding the reimbursement issue. In her opinion, Judge Pallmeyer stated that allowing districts reimbursement of monies paid during “stay put” periods would have a chilling effect on parents in IDEA cases:

“Requiring parents to reimburse a school district that ultimately prevails in a challenge to its proposed IEP would make parents without financial resources hesitant to take advantage of the stay-put protections.”

We believe this case is an important victory for parents of students with special needs, as it preserves the intended purpose of the “stay-put” provision.  Had the court allowed the reimbursement, potential precedent would have been established that would have allowed school districts to seek reimbursement for all services provided during “stay put” periods.  Such a result would have impaired a parent’s ability to advocate for their special needs child in IDEA disputes.

The school district is currently pursuing an appeal of Judge Pallmeyer’s decision, and in addition, has initiated an attempt to recover the costs (not attorney fees) of not only the Federal case but the underlying due process hearing.  This has resulted in an order for the parents to pay over $7,000.00 in transcript costs, which the parents have cross-appealed.