With Metro Nashville Public Schools poised to privatize custodial services, reduce bus driver pay by an average of 12.5 percent, and eliminate 24 clerical positions, and after all that, is counting on Metro government to approve an additional $25 million to reach its $633 million goal for next year’s budget, something like Angela Slate’s $80,000 settlement is just a tiny line item within a very small line item.
The latter, very small line item, is the schools’ self-insured liability fund, which it uses to pay off legal claims. The school district typically pays $540,000 into the fund in what amounts to yearly premiums. That figure may soon increase following a banner year for litigation against the district.
Last year, Slate’s case, which stemmed from an incident on April 1, 2009, when her daughter, Celena Szostecki, was burned by scalding water during a science experiment at Inglewood Elementary School, would have accounted for nearly one-third of only $259,000 in claims the district paid out.
But according to information obtained from the Metro Department of Law, MNPS has, as of the beginning of April, paid out $1.5 million in legal claims over the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
So Slate’s settlement, which the Metro Nashville Board of Education approved last month, barely qualifies as a dent. It is, however, indicative of the kinds of legal issues the school district regularly faces.
“It was something where they were using a burner trying to turn solid to liquid to gas. The teacher turned her back, and she spilled it,” said Dominic Leonardo, the attorney who represented Celena’s mother in a $300,000 lawsuit filed last summer.
“I thought it was striking, first of all, that at any elementary school, a child would be subject to any kind of science experiment that would pose such a serious danger to them,” said Leonardo.
That much is debatable. Even Leonardo concedes that the experiment was in the class textbook, thus a normal part of their curriculum. At that point in the story, it was merely an accident — unfortunate, but probably still within the bounds of these-things-happen.
“Originally, I believe they sent her to the bathroom with some other kids” to apply cold rags to what would turn out to be second- and third-degree burns that would leave permanent scars, he said.
Rather than call 911, the school called Slate, saying the burns were minor and might only require a visit to a walk-in clinic. In the lawsuit, Slate claims that when she arrived a short time later, she could hear Celena’s screaming from the school’s parking lot. She called an ambulance, and Celena was taken to Vanderbilt Medical Center to receive skin grafts, running up $36,000 in medical bills.
The school district settled with Slate for $220,000 less than what she had asked for, but Leonardo said he believed it was “satisfactorily resolved for all involved parties,” though he still characterized the incident as a “shock to the conscience.”
Slate’s case seems more run-of-the-mill — at least for this year.
“I haven’t seen a year like this before,” said Mike Safley, deputy director of Metro Legal, the department that oversees liability funds for both public schools and Metro government.
A breakdown provided by Metro Legal of all payments drawn from the self-insurance fund this year shows that the majority of the liability fund payments — 40 out of 54 — were a few thousand dollars or less. Most didn’t go to court and were small enough that they didn’t require school board approval.
“Those mostly represent some minor vehicle damage,” often from a bus, Safley said. “Say a school bus hits someone’s mailbox. That person will send us a claim for the value of the mailbox or whatever it is, then we’ll review it and, if it seems right, pay it.”
Two out of those 54, including Slate’s case, involved student injuries, contributing somewhat significantly to the total $1.5 million figure. The same goes for a handful of vehicle accident cases, like one $46,000 case from last year where a car carrying three people was rear-ended by a school bus.
Still, all told, those account for only about $300,000. The real issue this year was the million-dollar-plus marquee cases.
The first was $1.2 million the district has already paid to the family of a then-9-year-old autistic boy who in 2007 was forced to perform oral sex on a 19-year-old student while on a Metro school bus. That’s already part of the $1.5 million tally.
But the total is likely to double to nearly $3 million following U.S. District Court Judge Todd Campbell’s April 9 ruling against the school district, which was seeking a new trial in the case of former human resources employee Vicky Crawford.
Crawford sued the district for wrongful termination when she was fired in 2002, after participating in an internal investigation of then-employee relations director Gene Hughes. After the district lost the case in U.S. District Court in Nashville, and then lost an appeal, Crawford’s case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor last year. This year, Crawford was awarded more than $1.43 million in federal court in Nashville.
As of March 31, the public schools liability fund still held a bit over $2.4 million. Assuming a full payment to Crawford before the end of the fiscal year, it will remain at $1 million. Still, in light of this year’s expenses, the school board might be forced to consider an increase in its annual $540,000 appropriation.
“We haven’t really looked at that yet,” said Meredith Libbey, a district spokeswoman. “We receive a recommendation from the legal department as to how much we’ll need to spend on the self-insurance fund, and we haven’t gotten that yet.”
Libbey said the schools’ 2010-2011 budget request, including an almost $6 million increase in insurance costs, doesn’t reflect an anticipated need for an increase in the liability fund since the district is not sure what that recommendation will be.
Safley said a higher appropriation to the fund might be a possibility this year. It seems especially possible given what’s currently on the district’s docket, which is pretty full, and racking up legal expenses, a separate fund that has cost the district $250,000 this fiscal year. The yet-to-be-resolved NAACP case challenging last year’s rezoning scheme is responsible for nearly half of that.
There’s also Quiara Dixon, who allegedly received a strong electric shock while unplugging a pencil sharpener at Rose Park Middle School in 2008 and is suing the district for $350,000. And there’s Stacey Bills, whose child was allegedly sexually assaulted by a school bus driver in
Most recently, there are two cases involving former Donelson Middle School teacher Ronald Boykin, who allegedly raped a 13-year-old student. Metro schools had hired Boykin not knowing he was wanted by Chattanooga police for sex charges. The boy’s mother is suing for $10 million, and Jo Patterson, a black employee who was fired after being found responsible for Boykin’s hiring, claims that a white co-worker who was equally responsible was merely suspended. She filed a discrimination suit seeking five years’ pay.
“I think it’s possible that an increased appropriation will be considered,” Safley said. “As to whether they’ll do it or not, I’m not sure. Obviously they have budget issues.”
Mark North, who represents District 3 on the school board, was one of four votes against the recommended budget, citing the deep custodial and bus cuts. Given the fact that nearly 50 of this year’s paid-out claims involved bus damages, accidents or incidents that occurred on a bus, and many pending claims involve alleged slip-and-fall victims (often the province of the custodial department), North said the cuts leave him concerned about future litigation.
“If, for example, because of the reduction in pay, more bus drivers retire than usual or go somewhere else, having more inexperienced drivers in the road will open us up to more litigation,” he said. “Yeah, that certainly crossed my mind.”
Mark Naccarato, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 205, which represents the district’s custodians, said it’s something Metro government should consider as budget talks continue.
“Under [Superintendent Jesse] Register’s and the school board’s proposal, as we understand it, all the existing support staff would have to reapply for their jobs,” he said. “So in the process you are likely to see some employees not reapply and just retire. You’ll see some employees just go work somewhere else with decent pay and a decent insurance plan, because we don’t expect a good offer on insurance. What will end up happening is you may have the contractor hiring some new employees, working for low wages, who’ve never worked there before. In some cases, you’re going to be looking at lowest-common-denominator employees coming in. That could certainly open [the school district] up to more lawsuits.”
Register, the director of public schools, has a different view.
“I think the concern here is change,” he said following last week’s budget hearing with Mayor Karl Dean. “It is a change. It’s going to affect people directly. But this [request for proposal] we’re putting out is not extremely negative. We want to maintain salaries. We want to hire our people back. We think that as we take a look at the proposals coming in, our people are going to be OK.”