Wednesday, December 11th, 2013
The School Law Group at Bickerstaff Heath maintains an active practice representing traditional public schools and charter schools in all aspects of school operations. We provide colleges legal services in employment contracts, student rights, student discipline, Section 504 and special education, school finance and taxation, purchasing, land use regulations, civil litigation, board training, and school boundaries. Our experience as general counsel to rural and urban school entities enables us to effectively handle routine calls and complex entanglements.
Governing a charter school, school district, or community college district is often the first elected experience of a member of the Board of Trustees. As general counsel or special counsel, our school lawyers offer sound guidance pertaining to multiple areas of district governance, including: parliamentary procedure, conflicts of interest and nepotism issues, dual-office holding questions, official immunity, questions related to the use of public funds local policy,, and handbooks.
We advise schools on the complexities of open meetings requirements such as the adequacy of meeting notices and agenda postings, the legality of closed meetings, and how and when to conduct emergency meetings. We provide training and advice on handling requests for open records such as responses to requests for information and how to initiate correspondence to the Texas Attorney General.
We advise on trustee elections, bond elections, tax rollback elections, M&O tax rate authority, redistricting, voting rights, preclearance of voting changes from the Department of Justice, and records retention.
Employment Contracts in Public Schools
Bickerstaff Heath counsels school administrators and charter school trustees about proper documentation, evaluation, and discipline of professional employees employed by contract. When our clients identify professional employees whose work performance or conduct may warrant non-renewal or termination, we evaluate the case and guide clients through the hearing process. Our employment contract work is performed in a manner that is both respectful to the professional employee and responsive to the needs of the school. Our attorneys are also available to serve as Board advisors during termination proceedings. Superintendent contract negotiations and extensions also may be complex matters involving compensation, benefits, and professional evaluations; our lawyers have extensive experience in negotiating and documenting superintendent contracts.
Student Rights in Public Schools
Students do not lose their rights at the schoolhouse gate, and schools do not lose the responsibility to maintain a safe and secure environment. We help school officials understand the constitutionally and statutorily-protected rights of students. More importantly, we advise schools on best practices for protecting student rights while at the same time achieving the desired campus decorum. Student rights include the freedom to exercise religion, the freedom to associate and form student clubs, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to gender equity in sports, the right to private education records, and more.
Student Discipline in Public Schools
Recent amendments to Chapter 37 of the Education Code expand the reasons for which students must be removed from the classroom. These amendments necessarily force interplay and information sharing between schools, law enforcement officials, and juvenile courts. Bickerstaff Heath helps school officials to navigate effectively thisinterplay and to implement consistently local Student Codes of Conduct for safer schools.
Section 504 & Special Education for Public Schools
Bickerstaff Heath respects the critical importance of a school's proper compliance with Section 504 and the IDEA. From Child Find to Transition, we provide comprehensive guidance for accommodating and providing appropriate services to students with physical and learning disabilities.
Boundaries for Public Schools and Higher Education
Public school district boundary adjustments are rare, but nevertheless are significant when the need arises. The Firm's redistricting specialists and our school attorney team will create accurate maps of the proposed change and will submit the proposed changes to appropriate state and federal agencies for approval. The Firm's GIS mapping software also can be used for charting proposed changes to campus attendance zone boundaries. This service may be of particular interest to fast-growing school districts.
Community colleges and charter schools often need to annex neighboring territories. We have successfully handled several annexations for community colleges and have been active in seeking legislative amendments relating to the annexation process.
Our public finance group handles hundreds of bond and other public financing transactions each year. Between 1996 and 2009, we assisted Austin Independent School District on the election aspects of three successful bond elections in which voters authorized over $900,000,000 million for school projects. We have also handled over $300 million in bonds for Austin Community College and related entities. Working with financial advisors, our bond lawyers are experienced in counseling public entities on financing options, interpreting restrictions on the use of bond receipts, analyzing bond documents, and handling all aspects of the proposal, approval, election, and sale for financing instruments. Serving as bond counsel, underwriter's counsel or issuer's counsel, our lawyers help maintain this avenue of financing effectively and efficiently. For more information on Bickerstaff Heath's bond practice, a full description may be found on our Public Finance
Real Estate and Construction Projects
Millions of dollars of public money are invested each year in the purchase of real estate and the construction of public schools, sports venues, and college facilities. We help schools avoid the traps of relying on contractors and engineers for their legal protections. We represent schools in connection with the acquisition, condemnation, sale, lease, financing and development of real property. We assist with title and survey review, environmental site assessment review, and negotiation and drafting of purchase contracts, deeds, leases, easements, and other real estate documents. For one major school district, our team has recently drafted a complete set of contract documents to manage issues with architects, engineers, and the construction team. We advise on insurance and performance bond issues. If disputes arise during or after construction, our litigators have extensive experience negotiating and litigating construction matters. In a recent case, we obtained full settlement on behalf of a school whose gym floor resembled rolling hills. In another case, we defended a community college from claims related to alleged environmental hazards.
Litigation is never welcomed, and the Firm's attorneys help schools stay out of the courthouse and in the classroom through proactive representation. If a school or school employee is sued, immediate action is required to maintain the school's best litigation options. In one recent case, our lawyers obtained a favorable ruling in federal court, dismissing all claims against a small district's superintendent who had been sued by a former employee for the alleged violation of the employee's protected free speech rights. Cobby Caputo and Denise Pierce defended the superintendent against the former employee's claims and persuaded the federal judge to grant a motion for summary judgment in the superintendent's favor. Other recent cases have involved allegations of sexual harassment, violation of privacy, and contract claims. Recent community college lawsuits have involved student due process rights, health and safety violations, and employment issues.