Friday, August 25, 2017

School Choice?

Well, the Facebook page keeps telling me that it's been quite some time since I posted.   This, of course, forces me to think to myself, “What have I been up to since the last time I put up a blog post?” For the most part, the answer is school choice hearings. Anyone who practices in family law or has had much experience with it knows exactly what I'm talking about. People who do not probably are wondering what in the heck that means.

In Family Court, summer is school choice season.  What does that mean exactly?  Well, if you live in one school district and the person with whom you share custody lives in another, you will have to decide what school your child is going to attend. If you have been sharing custody and a parent moves to another school district, you may also face this issue.   Somebody might move, necessitating dealing with this tough issue. It could be that your child does nothing more than make it out of 5th grade and into middle school and now you're left wondering which middle school, because while you and your ex live in the same district that doesn't necessarily mean that your houses feed to the same middle school

You should probably just try to figure this one out, but if you don’t, what happens?

If you’re paying attention, you probably have your lawyer in court by late winter explaining to the Judge that, “Mom and Dad can't agree where Johnny should attend school and could the court please help us sort this out?“   

If the Court is going to help you to sort this one out, the first step is to have a judicial conciliation. I think I've mentioned judicial conciliations before in the context of a general custody case.  The principle is pretty much the same in the school choice context.  The parties’ attorneys explain to the Judge why it is they believe a particular school would be in the best interest of the child, and the Judge may offer some assistance in resolution if a compromise can possibly be reached.  However, most of the time you can’t just split the difference on schools, and where your child attends can often have an indirect impact on your overall custody schedule.  Transportation, activities, and a whole host of other issues are affected. 

When selecting between two different school districts there may be arguments that one is superior to the other based on test scores, class sizes, the teachers that you met when you went on a tour, and a thousand other little things that parties are likely to go find on the internet when they want to prove that they're making the better choice for their child.

School choice can be approached one of two ways.  First, the parties can ask the Court to decide which of the parents should have the right to make the decision because they're the superior decision maker and they are more likely to make a decision in the best interest of the minor child, etc.  More often though, the parties agree to allow the Court to make the decision as to which school Johnny attends.

Assuming that no compromise is reached at conciliation, the parties will then be scheduled to have a hearing (typically lasting a half-day) in front of the Court to present the Judge with information as to why their school should be chosen for Johnny.  

Prior to the hearing, the parties will be required to file Pretrial Statements telling the Court why you want what you want,  the people you will bring in as witnesses, documents you will  present, etc. Pretrial Statements are typically used to lay out the history of your case for the Court and bring up any other relevant issues in the past that may help them to make a decision with regards to school choice.   Many times, people want to use school choice as an opportunity to rehash and re-litigate their overall custody case.  This only expands the scope and prep of an already expensive decision making process.

Then there is trial prep--Meeting with attorneys to prepare for the case, having attorneys speak to witnesses, review documents, outline testimony, etc.

Then there is the hearing itself.   For every hour your lawyer spends in Court, there are several hours of preparatory work behind it.  So your lawyer meets with you, heads over to Court and is there for 3 or 4 or even 8 hours.  Math that out several times over, and your bill is really starting to add up for not being able to talk this through with your co-parent.

If it’s starting to, once again, sound like if you put more effort into working with each other and less into litigation you'd be happier and save a whole lot of money, that's because it’s probably true.   While there will always be situations that involve issues that simply do not allow for compromise (when there is abuse, or addiction, or other concerns for the child’s safety and well being), those are the exception, not the norm.  

So what's the takeaway?

If you haven't yet decided where Johnny is going to kindergarten in the fall, you are behind, but it’s not too late to raise the issue and if there's something very pressing going on, you may even get to talk to a Judge before fall semester.  Nonetheless, if you are facing a school choice issue or anticipate doing so in the future, you should probably start thinking about contacting an attorney now to see if anything can be done to resolve the issue or to, at least, have sufficient time to submit it to the Court.

If you like this post, please let me know by liking and sharing and, as always, if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to post in the comments section.  (Which does NOT create an attorney-client relationship.  You actually have to actually schedule an appointment and retain me for that to happen.)

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