A progress report on the Special Education Department to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education last Thursday drew criticism and calls for collaboration from members of the District’s Special Education Committee (SEDAC).
The District’s new Assistant Superintendent of Special Education, Tim Walker, presented the report, which touched on several issues, including three key areas: compliance with state and federal special education laws, financial concerns and program improvements.
Walker said that in his first four months with the District, his “top priority” has been to take the corrective actions required by the State Comprehensive Special Education Verification Review, which was performed by the California Department of Education last year.
The Department will do a follow-up review this summer.
According to Walker, a key “corrective action” has been the development of a new Individual Education Plan (IEP) form for the 2005-2006 academic year to “improve compliance” with state and federal laws. Said Walker, “Compliance is the foundation that everything else in Special Education is built on … [and] a compliant IEP offers a student a free and appropriate education.” During its review, the State found that 17 percent of annual IEPs and 9 percent of triennial IEPs were “out of compliance” with state regulations.
This lack of compliance has been blamed — in part — on out-of-date and complicated forms, which has lead to inaccurate record keeping. It’s Walker’s goal that his department “get the number of non-compliant IEPs under two percent within two reporting periods.” He further plans to computerize the IEP forms, in conjunction with sister Districts in Beverly Hills and Culver City, as soon as all three districts have access to the same computer systems.
Walker noted in his report that the District’s Special Education budget is almost three times the state average for Average Daily Attendance (ADA) figures for students. The statewide average is $275/ADA while the District’s average is $770/ADA. These figures prompted the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) to ask the District to develop a cost-containment plan.
The plan Walker and other District administrators developed includes the creation of new positions “to allow us to employ our own staff in areas where we are currently dependent upon specific costly non-public agencies.” The new positions include physical therapists, assistive technology specialists, behavior intervention specialists, and tiered assistant positions. According to Walker, these new positions would allow the District to provide needed Special Education support services within the District, thus saving on the cost of outside contracts.
Other cost containment measures include reviewing permit paperwork for students who do not live in the District and “decreasing the use of attorneys.” Walker hopes to accomplish this by “putting in place a process to resolve disputes directly with parents, thereby reducing the adversarial relationship usually associated when both sides are represented by legal counsel.” However, he added attorneys and advocates could still represent parents, “should they desire.”
Walker concluded his report by stating, “anticipated savings gained from the burgeoning budget would be invested in specific areas to provide programmatic improvements … [and] areas from the Special Education Strategic Plan would be included.” Specific changes or additions to Special Education programs were not detailed in Walker’s report.
Superintendent John Deasy followed-up on Walker’s report, as one of the performance targets assigned to him this year by the Board was improvement of the District’s Special Education program. Some of his comments drew fire from members of the SEDAC who helped craft the Special Education Strategic Plan.
Deasy stated, “The process of taking a look at the Strategic Plan and having staff identify and prioritize that plan has not been completed. This should not be read as [it being] slighted or not cared for. Quite frankly, I and Tim were taken back by the magnitude of the compliance issues,” and the state’s impending return visit.
He added, “As a result of that, we’re going to suggest [that] the working group come to the Board of Education to present the continued work of the Strategic Plan in Special Education and have staff commit to examining the plan over the course of the summer and identifying what we believe are the items inside the plan that can be implemented and what we believed are items inside the plan that can not be implemented fiscally or programmatically in terms of what we support. We will have our report before September 1.” He then thanked the Strategic Planning Committee “for the work they’ve done in providing the Board with a set of guidelines, as strategic plans are.”
Commenting on Deasy’s statement, SEDAC member (and Mirror contributing writer) Clara Sturak told the Board, “That’s not what the Board stated when the Board adopted the Strategic Plan last year. When you adopted it … you adopted everything in it. We’ve been trying to get together with staff to look at timelines, to look at prioritizing, to look at things that are high impact and low cost …. All those things are very feasible. The Board also advised Dr. Deasy before Mr. Walker arrived on the scene, when you all were talking about his performance targets, that he was to collaborate with the Strategic Plan Task Force in making these timelines and prioritizing, and I’m only hearing about staff here.” She then suggested, “Perhaps, Mr. Walker instead could be the person that collaborates with the Strategic Plan Task Force.”
Another SEDAC member, David Kramer, said, “It has been over a year since the Special Education Strategic Plan was presented to you, which you praised and eventually adopted. Since the presentation, there has not been much progress in implementing needed Special Education services and implementing the Strategic Plan in general, where actual results are seen in the classroom. In reviewing the agenda tonight, the report is targeted as an overview over the last four months, which my assumption is when Tim Walker took over his position. That means for approximately nine months, there has been no accountability or progress in the recommendations from the Special Education Strategic Plan or Special Education in our District.” He lamented that the report did not contain a timeline for the future to explain, “What will be accomplished, when and where.”
Board member Kathy Wisnicki called for the Board to hear an additional presentation from the Strategic Plan working group “before District staff prepares its report.”
Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez asked that, “We look at [the Strategic Plan] and have Tim [Walker] give us his expert opinion of the plan as it exists and sit down and do a timeline.” To applause, she added, “If the whole mission of our District is to make sure that all of our children are going to be successful, we have to honor that. We are going to bridge that gap for all children, not just certain children.”
Leon-Vazquez, a Board liaison to the SEDAC, added, “We have to make sure that we do take into consideration the amount of time and energy that our parents in this particular DAC have spent in terms of producing that plan. I’m really looking forward to having them collaborate with us. We have to come to a decision in terms of what we are going to accept from this plan and a timeline. That’s all that’s being asked.”
Board member Julia Brownly echoed Leon-Vazquez, saying, “The timeline is an important issue that we have to grapple with so we can have a long term plan. It seems from my perspective … we’ve got the Strategic Plan, we have Dr. Deasy’s performance targets and we have the outline presented by Walker. All the elements presented in all three are important and somehow [what’s needed is] incorporating them into one master plan with a timeline.”After some discussion, it was decided that Deasy and Walker would return to the Board with a staff response to the Special Education Strategic Plan, including a timeline with prioritization of efforts, by early September.