Remarks of Michael A. Champa at NEFAC’s 2016 New England First Amendment Awards

The remarks were given by Michael A. Champa after accepting the New England First Amendment Coalition’s 2016 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award. The award was given as part of NEFAC’s annual awards luncheon on Feb. 19 in Boston. More info on the luncheon can be found here.

Thank you Rob and congratulations to my fellow award recipients: Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and investigative journalist Jenifer McKim.  I am honored and humbled to be on the same stage and to be mentioned along side former recipients of the Orfield Award: Harriet Cady, Kit Savage and David Lang.

In the push to improve our public access laws we forget that public access has a face.  In our case it is the face of our 14-year-old daughter, Caroline.  It’s the face of ordinary citizens trying to understand their government in order to make an informed decision or expose a wrong.  It’s a discovery process, often dearly earned, and grounded in a basic American right to unfettered access to their government.  It seems that government officials sometimes forget that the preamble to our Constitution begins with the line, “We the people”.

Our public access journey began more than five years ago when Caroline was denied educational services by our public school district that we and a panel of experts believed she needed.  As we researched the alternatives and tried to work with our school system it became apparent that we did not have the information we needed to make an informed decision and there was no way to determine if the school was acting properly.  Requests for information went unanswered and the district refused to provide the kind of data any parent would want when deciding the fate of their child or when trying to evaluate the quality of their school.  We had no choice but to file a public records lawsuit.

It is important to note that over the last 45 years Congress and our State Legislature have come a long way to provide protections for the disabled and those with learning disabilities.  But, as these programs have developed and the budget impact better understood, local school districts have learned how to minimize (some would say avoid) their responsibility under the law.  What’s worse, school districts, properly concerned with student confidentiality, have been unwilling to share information about the implementation of their programs or the extent of the services offered.  School districts have resorted to negotiating private settlement agreements with parents; agreements, that until my SJC case was decided, were strictly confidential and not subject to public review.  It was my belief that these documents should be available to the public as long as they were properly redacted to protect student confidentiality.  The agreements, after all, obligated public school districts to expend tens of millions of dollars statewide and this money was being spent with virtually no public oversight nor were there any checks or balances to ensure that children were being treated fairly or that the intent of our special education laws was being enforced.

On October 23, 2015 the SJC upheld a lower court decision and ordered Weston to release the redacted settlement agreements.  A review of the agreements revealed what we feared most:  kids were not being treated fairly and parents are increasingly being required to assume the cost of educating their special needs children despite the statutory guarantee of “Free and Appropriate Public Education”. More importantly, those without the legal resources to negotiate are often closed out of the process.  I want to remind you that all of this happened in Weston, not exactly the mean streets of the inner city; I can only imagine and fear what’s happening in less affluent communities where parents are unable to hire lawyers or advocates to negotiate on their behalf.

My case took three years, countless meetings, strained conversations with school administrators and close to $80,000 in legal fees.  This can’t continue and an improved public records law needs to address both the amount of time required to resolve these requests and provide reimbursement of legal fees in the event a municipality is ordered to produce records, which were unjustly withheld.  I urge all of you to talk to your legislators and support an amended and strengthened Public Records Law, which is currently under consideration on Beacon Hill.

We won but the job is far from finished.  Now that we have the information and the SJC legal precedent we can accumulate the data required for a serious review of the special education private settlement process and move on to lobby for a legislative cure.  Without the data obtained through a public records request and the SJC order it would be virtually impossible to make a case for new legislation.  Public access to these documents exposed a problem that will ultimately point towards a course forward.

For our family and for the special education community is was a victory earned at a staggering cost but well worth it if it furthers the cause of public access and the fair treatment of all children in our public schools.

And finally, a postscript, I’m sure you remember Caroline, well, she made high honors the past two quarters at Brimmer and May School!

Thank you and thank you to the New England First Amendment Coalition.