Flint, MI— At least $9 million of a $641.25 million Flint water crisis settlement from the state of Michigan will go toward special education programs in Flint and Genesee County that serve Flint children most impacted by lead poisoning.

The money is part of a separate but related education class action lawsuit filed in 2016 by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Education Law Center on behalf of 15 Flint parents and their children, who claimed Flint Community Schools violated their special education rights. 

This lawsuit argued special education was an issue that needed to be uniquely addressed by dollars in the overall settlement from the state. So, while separate from the greater lawsuit, it claims money from the settlement for special education programs.

“The innovation of [our class action suit] was to recognize that the public health crisis in Flint that was caused when Flint was switched to lead-contaminated water was also an educational crisis. And that because there’s no medical intervention that can completely counter the effects of lead poisoning education really is the answer, and it needs to be an integral part of the response to the Flint water crisis,” said Lindsay Heck, lead attorney from White & Case LLP, a law firm representing the Flint plaintiffs pro bono. 

The Michigan Department of Education, the Genesee Intermediate School District and FCS are all defendants in the case. 

Though FCS is being sued because they were in noncompliance of several state laws concerning special education rights, the suit benefits the district long term, Heck said.

“What we were essentially arguing was that, in part, Flint Schools needed more resources in order to be able to comply with law. Even though they’re technically a defendant in the case, the redress that we were seeking would ultimately accrue to their benefit…So, by bringing the Genesee Intermediate School District and the MDE into the case, our legal theory was essentially that they are on the hook to make sure that Flint is equipped with the resources,” she said.

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FCS was failing to identify students with disabilities, failing to meet the needs of special education students through adequate programs, and was substituting disciplinary actions for behavioral issues that stemmed from disabilities, Heck said. 

“In 2018, we actually found that 25% of the positions allocated for special education were not filled at Flint Community Schools. So, that means in a school district where, at the time, one out of every five students was qualified for special education, one out of every four special teacher positions was empty,” she said. 

FCS officials said they would not comment on the matter as litigation is ongoing. 

A $4 million partial settlement was reached in April 2018 forced the state to establish a Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence in Flint. The center provides state-of-the-art testing “that is uniquely calibrated to detect lead’s impact on the brain,” Heck said. 

Testing is free to parents and their children. 

The $9 million will be doled out among districts over the next few years to Flint kids with disabilities in Genesee County but the process has yet to be determined. FCS and the GISD are currently negotiating terms. 

The GISD will be responsible for distributing the money but must do so according to the method agreed upon by all parties. 

The lawsuit requires the funds to make long term systemic and structural changes. 

“We have eligible students who can receive this funding. And this way, we really were able to make sure that money is going to be funneled into school districts that have a number of students who are exposed to the Flint water crisis,” Heck said. 

This also includes students who have moved outside of Flint. 

“The Genesee Intermediate School District has tracked where these students have moved who were living on the Flint water supply at the time of crisis and where students have gone,” Heck said. 

In addition, the GISD has pledged $1 million to supplement special education transportation costs as well as $1 million for FCS staffing needs. 

FCS and the GISD have recently been at odds over special education funding in general.

State Superintendent Michael Rice ruled Nov. 24 that the GISD’s special education funding formula which determines how Act 18 funds are distributed among Genesee County school districts was illegal and must be changed. That decision came after residents and board members raised concerns about the fairness of the formula last fall, claiming it favored other districts in the county over Flint.

That has made officials, like FCS Board member Danielle Green, worry about how the funds will be allocated.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for the GISD to be the overseer of any money that’s coming into Flint Community Schools. Those are the same group of people…that were intentionally hindering us from getting what we need for our special education students,” Green said. 

“The Genesee Intermediate School District and the Flint Community Schools administrations continue to collaborate on potential programs, services, and other solutions to meet the needs, and improve the lives, of children impacted by the Flint Water Crisis,” Superintendent of the GISD Lisa Hagel and Superintendent of FCS Anita Steward said in a joint statement.

Heck said she’s hopeful the lawsuit will foster a better relationship between FCS and the GISD. 

The funds are contingent on the outcome of the $641.25 water crisis settlement. A hearing date is set for Dec. 21 where Federal Judge Judith Levy will decide whether to give it preliminary approval. 

MDE officials said they would not comment until the case is concluded.

Carmen Nesbitt

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...