Stacey Smith is an Oakland school district parent and volunteer who has served on the District GATE Advisory Committee, the school board’s Special Committee on School Based Management, and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. I invited her to contribute periodically to The Education Report; any topic she writes about — including the below piece – does not reflect the view of any group. — Katy
I’m trying to understand the June 12 memo from outgoing Special Education Director Sharon Casanares to Oakland school district program specialists that eliminates their jobs as of June 29 and lays out over $4 million dollars of staffing and program cuts for special education in Oakland — cuts that may severely impact the support special education teachers and over 5,000 special education students receive.
According to the memo, personnel costs make up the bulk of the department’s budget so the majority of reductions are in that area. The number one criterion used to make cuts was to “make changes that will have the least impact on students in classrooms.” Substantial cuts are proposed in several key areas:
Staffing: The district eliminated all of the program specialists with plans to refill about nine of the positions in the fall under new job descriptions. Program specialists are credentialed, experienced special educators who supervise, mentor, train and support special education teachers. They also coordinate specialized services students need, like occupational therapy, assistive technology, and the Reading Clinic. The program specialists play a critical role to ensure students’ individual needs are being met and to help the district comply with special education legal requirements. Other planned staff cuts include one office manager, two coordinators, and most of one psychologist position.
The district also plans to effectively eliminate several special education teacher, instructional aide, and intervention specialist positions by not filling positions after people retire, resign, or take temporary leave. Instructional aides support resource specialists and special day class teachers and intervention specialists, who often have specialized training, can be found supporting students with autism spectrum disorders or behavioral disorders on an individual or small group basis. The district also plans to hire fewer substitutes for teachers and aides, which would potentially leave students without the educational support they need and also cause safety and compliance issues for OUSD.
Fewer, Larger Classes: The district wants to reduce the number of special education classes and increase the number of students in each class. This move comes less than two weeks after Director Casanares touted the 2011-12 accomplishment of offering a continuum of special education programs within each of the school district’s three regions to improve services to students in response to community demand.
The caseloads for resource specialists would increase to 28 students — the maximum allowed by law, but not a true indicator of the caseload a teacher can effectively carry given the different levels of support required. This change would reduce the amount of time a special education teacher can spend with a student providing the specialized instruction that they cannot receive in the general education program and that they need in order to make progress in school.
Supply and Contract Cuts: Finally, the district plans to cut the budget for materials and supplies, potentially limiting student access to learning and also possibly violating education code which requires instructional materials to be provided. Cuts are also proposed in contract costs for transportation and therapy.
OUSD describes “Community Schools, Thriving Students” as an obligation “to work in partnership with the community to develop students who are thriving academically and socially. … We expect our children to succeed, but it is only by providing the conditions necessary for high-levels of teaching and learning (academic, social and emotional) that we can we achieve this result.”
Maybe that explains the shock parents and teachers seem to be feeling over these new cuts. Has OUSD really decided that these cuts create the conditions necessary for high-levels of teaching and learning for special education students? As of this writing, I have not received any response from the district, but I will let Katy know as soon as I do.
The issue is complicated by a lack of transparency in the special education budgeting process and conflicting data from Oakland about its budget plans for special education. (Warning: Number geeks keep reading but all others skip to the next paragraph!) When Deputy Superintendent of Business Services and Operations Vernon Hal presented the 2012-13 budget to the board this month, he reported $85.7 million in special education costs and about $3 million dollars of cuts next year—most to be obtained by cutting transportation costs by $2.4 million.
Director Casanares’ internal memo pegs the cost of the “2012-13 proposed reorganization” at $63.5 million, projected revenues of $59.1 million, and orders to cut costs by about $4.3 million. As I just mentioned, the majority of cuts target staffing reductions. There are no individual dollar figures listed for the cuts in the Casanares memo. On June 27, the board of education will consider approval of the special education 2012-13 budget (a.k.a. SELPA Budget and Service Plan) that lists $74 million in both revenues and expenses and provides expenses in a state-mandated reporting format.
Personally, I think the board should hold off on approval of any budget until the district can explain the discrepancies, the reasoning behind the cutback decisions, and the true impact of the cuts. OUSD has decided after this past year of budget review that it wants to have “a program-based, prioritized budgeting process for all of our schools and departments. Instead of focusing on how and where to cut our budget, we need to focus our efforts on building and maintaining effective programs, and prioritize our strategic actions to ensure we are using our resources effectively and prudently. Our goal is to ensure that our budgeting choices are about investments in Oakland students, and not reactive to fiscal instability.” Looking at the conflicting proposed budgets it is hard to see how this orderly, program-based planning process is working. Much key information is missing in the budget documents.
Where is the 15 percent of special education funding that the state currently requires OUSD to spend on general education programs to reduce the disproportionate number of Native American and African American children in special education? How will these reductions enable the district to reduce compliance complaints and improve relationships with families – two major strategic goals? How much will the District spending on compliance complaints and legal costs? Who ordered $4 million in cuts and why? Will school sites be expected to pick up the expense of teachers, aides, substitutes and materials? Why did the district fire all of the program specialists and not leave a few positions in place to help with the transition to a new special education director and into a new school year? Program specialists are the ones who help transition students and teachers into new school years, so who will be taking on that complicated task? Finally how will these cuts improve educational outcomes for some our lowest achieving, most at-risk students?
Both the OEA and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC) recently sent out community alerts about the program specialist layoffs and the $4 million dollar cuts.
CAC Co-Chair Cintya Molina explains, “We are battling for the very survival of the Special Education structures that support our children. The eliminations and consolidations that accompany these most recent cuts are without precedent and will seriously hurt our children … It is time for bold leadership and action from all of us who truly believe in educational equity for children with special needs.”
A CAC-sponsored emergency meeting is planned for 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Family Resource Network (5232 Claremont Blvd.) to organize a community protest at the June 27 board meeting.
I recently blogged about how students with disabilities are among the lowest achieving students in the Oakland Unified School District and among the least likely to graduate. These students can achieve and succeed with the right supports. It’s hard to see how these cuts will enable the district to provide the kinds of supports that will lead to success.