Injured at school? Minneapolis district says it doesn’t have to pay

Claiming immunity from negligence suits, the Minneapolis schools are saving money — but alleged victims cry foul

By Scott Russell

For the past two years, the Minneapolis School District has eschewed insurance coverage against liability for negligent acts — leaning heavily on the belief that a decades-old state law gives it immunity from paying damages.

At least two pending suits — one from a woman claiming she was hit by a school bus, another from two kids hurt in gym class — challenge that interpretation. If the district loses, it could cost thousands of dollars in unanticipated damages during a school funding crisis. If it wins, those injured on school grounds wouldn’t receive money for medical costs, pain and suffering unless the district voluntarily pays.

Michael Goar, Minneapolis School’s director of labor relations and human resources, said the district was paying $1.5 million a year for general liability insurance in the 2000-2001 school year and faced a 50 percent hike the following year — "clearly, ridiculous sums of money," he said.

The school district decided it had enough in-house experience and size to run its own "mini-insurance company." Goar said. Known as "self-insurance," the district basically pays damages as they come, rather than paying premiums to a third-party insurer who covers costs above a certain amount.

One reason: Goar said the district "discovered this old law" which provided immunity to tort liability (i.e. negligence claims seeking damages for such things as medical costs, pain and suffering). That law encouraged the district to self-insure, he said.

"The district saw an opportunity to lower our expenditures," Goar said. "Any money we can save, we can give back to the buildings and the kids — for the kids to get books, paper and crayons."

Don McNeil, an attorney involved in a personal injury suit against the district, said he doesn’t buy the "save the money for the kids" argument. The impact of the district’s approach extends beyond his client, he said.

"It affects every school kid in the Minneapolis school district or anyone else who comes in contact with teachers or employees of the school district," McNeil said. "They decided they would rather not have the claims at all, and there would be no money to take care of people who have been injured through their negligence."

The two cases McNeil represents Marilyn Bullock, an elderly woman who claims a school bus hit her Jan. 10, near the intersection of East 26th Street and Chicago Avenue. She continues to go back and forth from the hospital to the nursing home and only has Medicare coverage, McNeil said.

Allen Giles, the school district’s general counsel, said, "there is no proof that it was a Minneapolis school bus."

McNeil said the district contends even if a Minneapolis school bus struck Bullock, the district is "completely immune" to the lawsuit, based on state law.

The Bullock case and one other turn on a new wrinkle in the old concept of "sovereign immunity" that made government bodies immune from negligence claims.

Minnesota eliminated sovereign immunity in 1963. Current state law allows people to sue local governments for negligence but limits damages to $300,000 per victim and $1 million for any single incident, regardless of how many victims.

When the Legislature eliminated sovereign immunity, however, it created a school district loophole. It required districts to carry liability insurance — unless costs exceeded $1.50 per pupil per year. If costs got too high, districts did not have to buy insurance and kept immunity.

Minneapolis Schools have approximately 48,000 students this year. At $1.50 per head, that’s a maximum of $72,000 for liability insurance, well below the district’s $1.5 million 2000-2001 premium.

McNeil, who represents the alleged victims, called the statute "archaic," claiming that Minneapolis is the only school district invoking the exemption. (State Commerce Department officials could not confirm that by press time.) The $1.50 per pupil figure was set in 1969 and has not been updated.

School district officials said the Commerce Department certified in September 2001 that it could not find liability insurance for $1.50 per student, which was confirmed by a Commerce spokesperson. That, district officials said, gave them liability immunity.

However, Giles said the district may make voluntary payments, recognizing an obligation to prevent risks to students, employees and visitors who come to a school campus. "If there are situations where someone is injured because we failed to do something, or we are

negligent, our practice is to try to resolve those," he said.

Parental risk Parents with kids in schools may be more interested in the case of two kids injured Nov. 1, 2001, during a gym class at a northside elementary school.

According to a lawsuit filed by parents, seeking in excess of $50,000 for mental and physical injuries, "At the behest of their teacher, the students were playing a game called ‘flashlight tag,’ which required them to run around the gym in total darkness, stopping only when the beam of the flashlight was shined on them by another student. Unfortunately, and also predictably to most forward-thinking adults, as a result of being unable to see where they were going, Kailynn and Shanel crashed headlong into one another, both sustaining serious injuries, as Shanel’s teeth became embedded in Kailynn’s head."

In response to the claim, Robert Zens, the district’s risk management coordinator, mailed the children’s attorney a copy of the state law and the Commerce Department certificate, saying the district could not afford to buy liability insurance at $1.50 per student and was therefore immune from liability.

A Hennepin County District Court judge agreed with the school district and dismissed the suit. A Minnesota Appeals Court panel ruled Sept. 2 the District Court had erred in part, saying the court record lacked an analysis of whether the $1.50 per pupil figure in the immunity-giving law was reasonable, given its 1960s vintage.

Neither former School Board President Catherine Shreves nor current and long-time member Judy Farmer recalled the decision to self-insure well enough to comment on it.

Goar said the district typically gets a claim a week, with claims going up in winter when walkways ice up.

"Based on our assessment, we felt by being self-insured, we could save the district lots of money," he said. "Based on our experience, we are correct. Once in awhile, you get one claim here and there costing $4,000 or $5,000. But so far we have been very fortunate that we have not received huge claims." The district was asked for an assessment of annual savings. It was not provided by press time.

One last wrinkle A major potential problem for the Minneapolis district: the law providing school-district immunity expired on July, 1, 1975, and was not in effect for two decades, according to 1994 statutes.

However, a 1996 technical bill, called the Revisor’s Bill, eliminated the expiration clause but left the rest of the statute intact. That could be interpreted as reviving the immunity language, and the Minneapolis district’s immunity from negligence payouts. However, state law says that when the state repeals an already-repealed law, "the former law shall not thereby be revived, unless it is so specifically provided." The 1996 Revisor’s Bill did not do that.

Whether the Legislature intended to revive school immunity — and whether it should still stand — is not clear and has not been litigated.

Minneapolis’ Giles said the Commerce Department knew the law and had issued the district a certificate saying it was immune from liability. That issue was

one for the Legislature or the courts to decide. "I am not aware that it is an

issue," he said.

Late-comers flock to new Burroughs The Minneapolis School District requires parents to choose their child’s school by Jan. 15 for the following school year. By March 1, the district has basically figured out how many kids are going to go where and can begin allocating budgets and teacher assignments. Tim Cadotte, principal at Burroughs Community School, personally leads over 100 tours for perspective parents. He said that when parents miss that deadline, the typical response is "too bad, so sad."

However, this year, 64 kids applied to Burroughs past the deadline — 10 percent of the school’s capacity — and something surprising happened: all were accepted.

Why so many latecomers?

"Until people saw the new building going up on 50th Street, it wasn’t a reality," said Jackie Turner, student placement services coordinator for the Minneapolis school district. "When they saw how beautiful it was, genuine enthusiasm grew for the new school, and parents wanted their kids to attend."

There were other factors. Turner said that 35 percent of the late applicants were from families who moved into Burroughs’ attendance area after the Jan. 15 cut-off. The Lynnhurst school’s attendance area is bordered by I-35W, 46th Street, Penn Avenue South and Diamond Lake Road.

Special consideration is also given to Kingfield residents because they have no community schools. The school, which opened in September, was built to hold a maximum of 650 kids. This year’s student population is 512.

Said Cadotte, "I live in the neighborhood, so the last thing I want to do is to take a hard line and say, ‘sorry, there is no room at the inn.’ We started getting so many phone calls and the student placement center had a waiting list that got so big that they decided to just make another Kindergarten class."

Cadotte said that many of the newcomers were Montessori private school students whose parents didn’t want their children attending Kindergarten at Burroughs, but did want them there for first grade. He estimated that about 25 percent actually forgot about the deadline — many assuming that sibling preference would automatically get their next child in.

Turner said the district wants to be accommodating, but Burroughs late-comers got lucky. "In the placement service office, we are moving towards market-driven demand," said Turner. "That’s not to say that we are always going to be able to let kids in because at several schools the physical capacity of the building is at fire code, so we can’t do that. But at a place like Burroughs, where they have the space, we were able to do it." — Bob Gilbert

Lake Country to open satellite location Lake Country School is branching out. The Kingfield neighborhood private school, 3755 Pleasant Ave. S., recently received a $400,000 grant to open a new school for at-risk kids, possibly in North Minneapolis.

Principal Kathy Coskran said this new venture would be at a satellite, off-campus location beginning in the 2004-2005 school year. It will be called Bright Water Montessori.

Ann Luce, a Kingfield resident, has worked at Lake Country for 15 years and is currently in charge of its infant and toddler program. She said that when Lake Country discovered that the Winona-based Hiawatha Educational Foundation offered startup grants for preschool Montessori programs, they jumped at the opportunity and became the foundation’s first recipient. Luce will be the new school’s administrator and will also teach at Bright Water Montessori.

School officials say North Minneapolis is the leading possibility for its placement because of the need there. Also, classroom space in Southwest Minneapolis has been difficult to find.

Said Coskran, "Our proposal is to use our experience and our expertise to create a new school where transportation will not be an issue for the people we are trying to serve. The need in low-income areas is great because, typically, Montessori education isn’t available there."

The grant, doled out over three years will underwrite two classrooms, one for 15 toddlers, the second for up to 30 students ages 3 to 6. Tuition will be assessed on a sliding scale.

Bright Water will be a separate nonprofit organization but will have many of the same board of directors members as at Lake Country, which is now in its 27th year, serving 300 students from 3-year-old preschoolers to 8th graders.

Bright Water hopes to start accepting applications in January. — Bob Gilbert

Armatage seeks reading partners Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56 St., is looking for volunteers to help with their Armatage Reading Partners, an in-school program wherein adults volunteer to help kids in grades 1-5 with their reading skills.

The program is five years old, but this year, attrition has left it short of volunteers. Organizers need adults able to spend an hour a week, one on one with a grade-schooler, and commit to that relationship throughout the school year.

Mark Merryman, Reading Partners Coordinator at Armatage, said doing this work yields significant results: "By becoming a better reader, children can excel at school and at life."

For more information, contact Merryman at 926-6043, or at Armatage School 668-3180. Or e-mail the program at [email protected] — Bob Gilbert