Jeff Spitzer-Resnick says the case could spur the Madison school district to offer 4-year-old kindergarten and amp up its assistance to dozens of families.
"My clients can afford preschool," says Spitzer-Resnick, an attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit public-interest law firm. "The people who most need help and most stand to benefit are the ones who can't."
Spitzer-Resnick is representing the parents of a 4-year-old special needs child. A district evaluation in mid-2007 determined that the child qualified for special education services, as is mandated for 3- and 4-year-olds by state and federal law.
But the Madison district does not offer 4-year-old kindergarten and has only nominal programming for kids in this category. And so the parents (whom Isthmus is not naming to protect their child's privacy) asked Disability Rights Wisconsin to argue that the district must pay the costs of a private preschool they used as an alternative.
"They came to us because they saw the big picture of lots of families who can't afford preschool," says Spitzer-Resnick.
In late May, an administrative law judge ruled in the parents' favor, saying the district's actions violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. She ordered the school district to pay part of the costs of the services provided at the private preschool. (The ruling is available in the related downloads at right.)
Both sides are now appealing that decision. The parents argue that the district ought to be paying the entire cost. The district argues that the parents are not entitled to tuition reimbursement. It says Madison schools provided requisite services, and the parents are essentially asking it to cover the cost of full-time childcare.
The two appeals were filed in separate court systems but will likely be heard in federal court.
Already, the administrative law judge's ruling has had a statewide consequence. The district had relied on a bulletin from the state Department of Public Instruction to support its view that it need pay only the cost of teachers, not tuition, for mandated services provided by private preschools. The judge deemed that this advice had no basis in law.
"I went to DPI and said, 'Hey, you have to rewrite the policy, it's got to go,'" relates Spitzer-Resnick. DPI's revised policy states that if required services are provided by a private preschool, "the entire educational program..., including tuition, must be at no cost to the parents."
Spitzer-Resnick says there's no way the district can claim that the services it now provides are adequate. He says offering 4-year-old kindergarten as a district-wide option would go a long way to plugging this gap.
The district's lawyer, Joanne Harmon Curry of Lathrop & Clark, acknowledges there's "a difference of opinion on what obligation the law places on the district" but says the district is confident in its legal position.
She declines to comment on whether the case may have larger implications, as Spitzer-Resnick contends. "We're going to let this go to the courts," she says, "before we speculate on any possible outcome."
Goodness snakes alive
Russ Hefty won't even say where it is. He doesn't want people snooping around, harassing the snakes.
Last fall, the city acquired some parkland on Madison's northeast side, along with a house. Its cement block foundation, the owner revealed, was a haven for hibernating snakes. Hefty, the city's conservation resource supervisor, contacted Bob Hay of the state Department of Natural Resources.
Hay, who works for the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Species as its cold-blooded species manager (really), helped devise a plan to protect the habitat. This included using hay, the lower-case kind, to help the snakes make it through the winter without heat from the house.
Last month, as the city prepared to raze the house, Hay arrived onsite and noticed a fair number of snakes. Most were common garter snakes, up to 30 inches, with a couple of smaller northern brown snakes. The females were pregnant - gravid, it's called - as is typical this time of year.
Hay and Hefty each bagged a bunch and took them home, so they wouldn't get crushed by the heavy equipment. How did that work out? "My wife loves them," attests Hay. What a gal.
The city also enhanced and enlarged the snake habitat, essentially building an onsite hibernaculum. (Boy, you're really getting a vocabulary boost from this week's Isthmus.)
After the house was razed and habitat enhanced, the snakes were brought back. Hefty rounded up a few stray garters, getting bit in the process by a gravid female: "She wailed on me and drew blood." They'll do that.
Hefty says the story shows the city's enlightened approach to other species. "We really do care about all the critters, not just the cute and fuzzy ones."
Hay calls the snakes an important part of the ecosystem. "None of these species we coexist with are here by accident," he says. He doesn't think any chance encounters with the new snake habitat will be "negative for the snakes [or] the people." Folks strolling the area, he says, are "out there to commune with nature." So were Adam and Eve.
Downtown Madison needs to invigorate and diversify its nighttime economy, according to a draft report prepared by an outside consultant. This includes creating a new management team, improving transit options (did somebody say trolley?), enhancing public safety, doing a better job of integrating retail and entertainment, and shifting from a drinking culture to a socializing one (we'll drink to that!).
"This is a pretty cool thing," says Susan Schmitz of Downtown Madison Inc. "We're trying to change the way we do business in the entertainment areas."
DMI joined with the city of Madison and several corporate partners to come up with $15,000 for the Responsible Hospitality Institute of Santa Cruz, Calif. The draft report, which will be finalized next month, grew out of a series of roundtable discussions that will continue even now that the consultant's work is done.
"The best part about this process is the people who are at the table talking to each other," says Schmitz of an effort that included police, bar owners and neighborhood reps. "It's not real big, fancy, sexy stuff, but it's people talking to each other."
Schmitz expects it will take another six months for her group to produce an action plan. "We have to decide how to move forward and how we put some of these new ways of doing business in place."
For the draft report, see the related downloads at top right. City officials caution that the report contains errors and is subject to significant revision.