Fresno Unified spent $360,000 on Krista Uribe special education case

The Fresno BeeFebruary 26, 2014 

Alice de Alba-Uribe, right, and her daughter, Krista Uribe in a 2012 photo.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Fresno Unified has spent $360,000 on attorneys fees since February 2012 in a court battle with a mother and her special needs daughter, who twice was removed from Duncan Polytechnical High School because of her disabilities.

Ruth Quinto, the district's chief financial officer, told The Bee in an email Wednesday that the costs cover lawyers and other legal expenses that the district racked up during two recent administrative law cases, plus a related ongoing federal suit involving the family.

The case, first reported in The Bee in 2012, involves Krista Uribe, who was intellectually impaired from having seizures as a toddler. Uribe's mother, Alice de Alba-Uribe, has maintained her daughter was discriminated against and unable to get basic special education services at school. After school administrators decided to disenroll Uribe from Duncan without her mother's permission, de Alba-Uribe decided to push back.

De Alba-Uribe won two administrative cases against the district, each time getting her daughter readmitted to Duncan. In January, the family had a third victory in administrative court, with the judge ruling that the 22-year-old Uribe should get access to special adult education programs.

District spokeswoman Jamilah Fraser said officials released the attorney fee information because "The district believes in transparency." But the legal costs were released only after The Bee made several phone and email requests over the past two months. The Bee also asked for the costs in 2012.

De Alba-Uribe said she also tried tracking down the information. She said she's written the district three times requesting the legal costs of her cases, but was denied each time. Fraser said de Alba-Uribe requested the information twice.

A statement from district spokeswoman Susan Bedi said officials couldn't respond to earlier requests for invoices because of privacy laws and "providing such would place an undue burden on district employees and resources." Bedi didn't say why the information is being released now.

"In an effort to adhere to our commitment to transparency, staff spent an inordinate amount of time developing a document that provides an exact dollar amount, in order to provide to The Fresno Bee," she said.

De Alba-Uribe was shocked to hear the information was made public -- and to learn the current bill.

"My God, how ridiculous," she said.

The single mother of four said years of legal bickering have taken a financial toll on her family, costing her thousands of dollars in lost wages as she took time off from work to write briefs in her daughter's defense.

De Alba-Uribe hired -- then lost -- three attorneys over the course of the suits. She said she was unable to afford the fees and didn't see eye-to-eye with at least two of them.

Now she has a new attorney, Lakewood-based Tania Whiteleather, who is aiding her as she continues fighting a federal lawsuit filed by the district.

Whiteleather said she decided to take on the case because the district "lost three times to the parent and nothing is moving along and getting done.

"I just felt this shouldn't have been going on this long," she added.

In the federal case, the district is seeking relief from one of the administrative hearing decisions and to recoup attorney's fees. In recent months, the district has filed for a summary judgment. It also asked the presiding judge to seal certain court documents, arguing doing so would protect the family's privacy.

Federal Judge Michael Seng has since denied the request to seal documents, citing public interest in the case and recent media attention that makes many of its details public. Bedi acknowledged this and said the district ultimately agreed with the decision.

The case will continue in March.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, hfurfaro@fresnobee.com or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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