Parents of special education students are disputing claims by the on funding for special education programs. These parents claim that budget deficits are factored in the distribution of resources to these education programs, particularly when it comes to keeping children in or out of district.
“It is really a question if the spirit of the law is being adhered to and in many cases it is not,” said Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) Chair Michael Levi.
Levi explained that the district does not have an appropriately tailored program for those special education students that fall between mild and severe disabilities. Levi claims that these are the students hurting most right now. Levi said he’s noticed a trend where children with moderate needs are being improperly placed with other students with severe disabilities.
That trend also means that children are kept in the school’s more affordable district program rather than being placed at a more appropriate—and more costly-- program outside of Arlington School District,.
“A trend that has been occurring in the district the last two or three years that is basically budget driven and I expect it to be exacerbated by the latest problems,” Levi explained.
The latest dilemma is a $3.3 million budget deficit for the 2012 fiscal year. Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Bodie maintains that although staff cuts are happening district-wide, the special education program will ultimately be left untouched.
“[If cuts are made] it will be small things here and there that would make the program more efficient,” said Bodie.
Currently the Special Education Budget is one-third the overall school budget, and about a quarter of the students participate in the program. That means of 4,000 high school students, approximately 1,000 could have an Individual Education Program (IEP).
With school enrollment growing by approximately two percent and an increasing budget, the administration is going to have to question employing non-required courses and some of the administrative or custodial employees.
One of the main reasons that the school administration decided not to cut teaching staff from the special education program is because the alternative would be sending children out of district for those classes.
“A lot of the teachers in special education are in special programs,” said Bodie. “So if we did not have these substantially separate classes these students would have to be in an out of district placement.”
Bodie and administrators found the current program properly staffed. In the future she said they may find that a teaching assistant may no longer be needed.
Bodie explained that the school is legally bound to comply with the child’s IEP.
“The budget doesn’t matter. We have to provide the appropriate services,” she said.
Learning Plans, Court Cases and “Dirty Little Secrets”
Levi said that the difficulty begins when the district needs to decide where a child receives the services laid out in the IEP, specifically for the children that have middle range learning disabilities.
A team of specialists creates each IEP, with members of the group working separately to administer objective and standardized tests to the child to determine optimal learning conditions.
Parents and children can be devastated when a child that has demonstrated strong social and verbal skills is inappropriately placed in a class with autistic children. Levi said that trying to place a verbal child with only non-verbal children is a poor way for the district to accommodate to a child’s IEP.
“In some cases the district refuses to look at and offer out of district placement for whom they do not have appropriate placement,” Levi said. “They are essentially saying ‘We will make what we have work,’ and the child and family suffer.”
Levi also said that changes in a child’s curriculum to accommodate the budget can happen when IEP success comes under fire during the yearly review.
“You have a child that had a full-time aid or shared aid, and they made visible progress. Now it is determined that they only need the aid one hour a week. That decision is driven by a message that says lets reduce aids by as much as possible,” explained Levi.
Parents faced with this type of reduction in services may start legal proceedings against the school district for not properly meeting students’ needs. But faced with choosing between a financially and emotionally draining court battle or settling with the district to safeguard their child’s education, those families usually choose the latter.
“The details of the settlement go under non-disclosure,” said Levi. “They are not allowed to talk about it. So it becomes a dirty little secret.”
Bodie said thewill present parents with an update on the program in the upcoming weeks. Levi also is continuing to work with the committee to see that parents’ concerns will be addressed. The school committee will present parents with an updated budget and program for next year in the next month.