Math Lesson: Scofflaw Florida School District’s Legal Expenses Add Up
June 22, 2009 - By Sandhya Bathija
With public schools facing budget cuts, most school officials are looking for ways to spread each dollar as far as it can go.
One would think that means the school would us that money to pay teachers, improve the curriculum, maintain the building and buy school supplies. That’s probably what Santa Rosa County School District would prefer to do as well, except, they failed to follow sound constitutional advice and now must use precious public funds on attorneys’ fees.
Last August, the American Civil Liberties Union brought a lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County School District for allowing school officials to regularly promote personal religious beliefs and lead prayer.
The ACLU put the district on notice about the constitutional violations six times over the past two years. School officials failed to take enough action, sending this matter into the courts.
Following a January preliminary injunction ordering the district to stop, school officials signed a consent order admitting wrongdoing and promising that they would no longer take part in religious activities.
But in May, they violated that order.
Now, the school’s legal bills are expected to grow to $450,000, and despite insurance covering some of cost and receiving free representation from the Religious Right group Liberty Counsel, it still owes much of that money from its own pocket.
School District Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick told the Pensacola News Journal
: “It’s not where I would have placed that amount of money, but it was what it was.”
Wyrosdick’s comment is, as Howard Friedman over at the Religion Clause blog
said, “something of an understatement.”
Though it won’t impact the school immediately, the school can expect its current $2 million annual insurance premium to hike up eventually. In addition, the ACLU can collect up to $256,060 in attorneys’ fees, which the school was required to pay in the consent decree.
Looking back, school board member Diane Scott said they should have done something before the issue ended up costing so much.
“In hindsight, given the fact that there were so many different allegations over the years that were covered in the suit, yes, we could have done something differently,” she told the News Journal. “But that’s water under the bridge now.”
That may be the case this time around for Santa Rosa County, but other public school districts should see this as an important lesson. After all, Santa Rosa County is not the only school district that has made this mistake.
Often, when Americans United sends a letter to public school officials advising them that they are violating the Constitution in failing to remain neutral on religion, they respond that they are not afraid of litigation. They claim that they have insurance and that a group such as Liberty Counsel or the Alliance Defense Fund will represent them for free.
But that doesn’t mean they won’t incur other costs - ones that probably make it worthwhile to follow the law.
So next time, when school officials receive a letter from a civil liberties group urging them to stop violating the Constitution, it might be smart to listen.