Manatee school board settles 3-year-old lawsuit

BRADENTON -- Manatee County School Board members unanimously approved settling a lawsuit against the parents of a child with disabilities Monday, ending a three-year disagreement.

By approving the settlement, $55,000 will be awarded to the parents.

“It doesn’t set any kind of precedent,” Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal said. “It is a good settlement.”

The lawsuit, which started back in 2008, was initiated after the school district wouldn’t give the OK for an independent evaluation of a then 11-year-old child who was diagnosed with Asperger’s -- a high-functioning form of autism.

The parents wanted a private psychologist to evaluate their child in the classroom. School district officials, however, said they didn’t want “a private vendor in the classroom would be disruptive.” School officials said the information could be provided by interviewing the teachers without disrupting the classroom.

The case went to the Division of Administrative Hearing in 2008. An administrative law judge found in favor of the parents. However, the school district appealed to Tampa’s U.S. District Court. District officials sought an appeal to Atlanta’s U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which asked for all avenues to be exhausted in Tampa first.

“This was our right as a district to control access to the classroom by outside vendors,” school board attorney John Bowen said before the board’s vote Monday.

“My clients were out to help their child.” Timothy Weber, who represents the parents, said before the final vote.

Bowen said the district’s private attorneys will be paid at least $154,000 in fees. The case, however, didn’t sit well with everyone.

School board member Karen Carpenter said she was concerned about the impact news reports on the lawsuit would have on the school district. Now, she hopes to move forward.

“I’m happy we can learn from all these issues,” Carpenter said.

Tom Garland, who serves on the district’s budget committee, said he was empathetic towards the responsibilities board members have before them.

But added, “I believe there should be a review of the legal department.”

He said there needs to be a better way to proceed with legal matters in the future.

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