In Oakland, tumult in special education leads teachers to organize

A series of decisions about the costs, staffing and structure of Oakland Unified’s special education department caused parents to mobilize in June against last-minute reductions to the program.

Months later, the 11th-hour reassignment of dozens of special education teachers appears to have had a similar effect on teachers. (District staff have since reported that many, but not all, of those changes have been rescinded.)

Within the teacher’s union, a new group has emerged: The OEA Special Education Caucus website features a blog, a statement of purpose, and possible solutions for improved communication and logistics, including something as simple as a roster with department staff names and contact information.

Emily Sacks, one of the organizers, said the upheaval brought teachers together. The thinking?  “We can get really specific about things that are not rocket science, but that could impact the situation dramatically.”

At Wednesday night’s board meeting, as new special education director Karen Mates gives a presentation about plans for the department (and community involvement in the making of those plans), there could be a large special education contingent.

What issues do you hope the OEA Special Education Caucus takes on, and what resolution do you want to see?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • oaklandteacher

    Thank you for reporting on this. I think this is a crucial area of need and as a special education teacher, the district needs to do better.

    I would love to receive an e-mail from the special education director and/or my program specialist introducing themselves and welcoming all teachers back for a new school year. I would love to receive a weekly bulletin with new changes, documents we need to be aware of, who to call within special education for issues, etc.

    Communication is the biggest piece that PEC can improve upon. As teachers we are the first line for our administration and also our parents and we need to be informed.

    Caseloads are another big issue and I am at the legal limit but there is no response from PEC about steps they are taking to ensure I don’t go above the legal limit.

    Thank goodness professional development is being planned by an office other than PEC; this is another huge area of need.

    I hope there is a huge turn-out from the special education community. I know I will be there!

  • caucus member

    One of the focuses of the caucus will be to protect the special education language in our current contract. We hope to add language that will protect students, including severely handicapped students, particularly those in wheelchairs, from being overcrowded into oversize SDC classes.

    Regardless of who is doing what at PEC and 2nd ave, it is clear that intentions are not going to benefit students. And the initial proposal that OUSD “sunshined” as part of bargaining, directly affects special education students and teachers in a negative way.

    I also really encourage all special educators to attend any meeting where we can get together and meet, to share ideas, talk about students,teaching, and materials, and especially right now: to organize ourselves against changes that negatively affect our work and practice. Talk to each other; find other special ed teachers and ask them what they know. Organize! Attend!
    1. CAC meetings
    2. Special Ed Caucus meetings
    3. OEA meetings
    4. blogs – including this one and the new caucus blog

  • Nontcair

    From the “Statement of Purpose”

    We will organize [as many political factions as we can] against all attempts to cut and degrade these programs.

    Once again we see the special interests working to exploit and manipulate vulnerable populations so as to keep tax dollars flowing their way.

    What’s next? A Labor Day Telethon?

    Once again we see public education as nothing more than just another government spending program to benefit political ins, paid for by political outs (who would much rather be left alone).

  • Nontcair

    We advocate to strengthen contractual language protecting staff and students in special education programs, including class size limits for SDC classes and caseloads, lower caseload limits for RS teachers, and limits on the number of schools assigned to individual teachers ..

    One of the more openly unbridled demands for protectionism that you’ll see.

    (1) class size limits: more teaching positions
    (2) caseload limits: fewer working hours
    (3) limited school assignments: territorial monopolies

    A breathtaking list.

  • Sue

    Ah, Non, those thing are needed for the *students* to succeed. I say this as the parent of a 20-y-o with autism who graduated from Skyline in 2010, has a college GPA of 3.68 and has been invited to join the Honors Society at CSUEB. I saw what his OUSD teachers had to handle every day with him and his peers, and those teachers were stretched to their very limits.

    A) More students would mean fewer minutes for each student. There’s a point (and we were always dancing around it back then) where the kids get short-changed and don’t get the education they are legally entitled to receive because the teacher simply can’t give adequate attention and support to too many students.

    B) Our caseworkers (the good ones, anyway) were willing to meet with us at our convenience, outside of school hours, and were working with kids all through the school day. Caseworkers aren’t supposed to be superheros. They need to have time for eating, sleeping, and spending time with their own families and children. When they have too many cases to handle (some of the bad ones we dealt with), they get burned out, and the kids get really awful services.

    C) It’s important to *not* send people running all around the whole district. Staff needs to know their spec ed students as individuals, and they need to know the rest of the general ed teachers and staff at the site(s) where they work. One can’t match a kid’s strengths with the right teachers if one doesn’t know the kid and the teachers. Needs and state standards change with each year, so what works in elementary schools doesn’t necessarily work at the middle schools and high schools. Staff need to stay focused, not be scattered across too broad age ranges, too many schools and too many people.

    It would be much less costly if all teachers and all students were identical and we could fit every peg into the same-sized hole. But we aren’t talking about same-sized pegs in a factory. We’re talking about kids with individual challenges, and teachers with individual strengths and subject matter expertise. So staff needs to have a depth of experience, knowledge and relationships to match the right peg to the right hole. We can’t have that depth if we’re asking them to spread themselves over too wide a territory.

    The Spec Ed teachers Caucus sounds like they’re focusing on what their students need to get and education and succeed. That is what I learned to expect from them when I was involved in OUSD. With their knowledge and experiences, my son has been successful beyond my wildest imaginings, and I support them in continuing to advocate for what’s needed for their students to keep on succeeding.

  • J.R.

    OT for the benefit of taxpayers and voters in the state of California regarding points that Sue has made:

    A) More students would mean fewer minutes for each student. There’s a point (and we were always dancing around it back then) where the kids get short-changed and don’t get the education they are legally entitled to receive because the teacher simply can’t give adequate attention and support to too many students.

    Valid point,but the last in first out policies play into this in many districts. Using the two for one analogy that the CTA likes to use. For every tenured teacher that must be kept(LIFO), two junior teachers must be let go, and since the district budgets are limited this means larger class sizes.

    on we go:

    C) It’s important to *not* send people running all around the whole district. Staff needs to know their spec ed students as individuals, and they need to know the rest of the general ed teachers and staff at the site(s) where they work. One can’t match a kid’s strengths with the right teachers if one doesn’t know the kid and the teachers. Needs and state standards change with each year, so what works in elementary schools doesn’t necessarily work at the middle schools and high schools. Staff need to stay focused, not be scattered across too broad age ranges, too many schools and too many people.

    There is a union-backed policy called “bumping” which encourages a chain reaction of shuffling personnel and havoc that supposedly these people want no part of.

    So all you taxpayers,parents really need to stop listening to rhetoric and watch very carefully what people do, not just listen to what they say.

    Back to thread……….

  • Jim Mordecai


    Policies have upside and downside. The last in first out is experienced vs. inexperienced employee policy when reduction in force (RIF) takes place. But, as implemented in the public schools this is not a followed 100%. The provides for exceptions.

    Districts under the law can protect areas of personnel shortage. Special Education is an area of shortage and usually gets protect in OUSD and the State.

    My understanding is that the State law “last in first out” policy doesn’t apply to charter schools. And, a blanket criticism of charter schools is that charter schools vs. public schools have a greater portion of staff with less experience than the nearby public schools. Teach for awhile does not a profession make critics of charter schools charge.

    Your broad point in “C)” seems to be a call for stability and policy promoting experience such as first in first out would seem to be the thing you should want. The concept of “bumbing” may apply under contract to instructional assistant unions and other OUSD unions, but as has been stated before “bumping” DOES NOT APPLY TO TEACHERS whether special education teachers or other type of teachers.

    One additional point about first in first out policy. Because of the high turnover in Oakland, and the high number of 1st and 2nd year of teachers not asked back, the first in and first out policy doesn’t usually come into play. Now all 1st and 2nd year teachers may receive a notice in May that budget might require all of them to be released but in September they usually have their jobs if their principal wants them.

    And, I agree with your plea, J.R. for taxpayers and parents to watch what the District does and not just what it says.

    Jim Mordecai

  • J.R.


    My plea applies to all, trust but verify.

    “but as has been stated before “bumping” DOES NOT APPLY TO TEACHERS whether special education teachers or other type of teachers”.

    RE: your dispute of my assertions, This is from the CTA:


    “How does seniority come into play?

    The law provides that no permanent employee may be terminated while any probationary employee, or any other employee with less seniority, is retained to render a service which the permanent employee is certificated and competent to render. Usually the seniority date will be the first day of work as a probationary employee. Employees who first rendered paid probationary service to the district on the same date will be ranked by tie-breaking criteria determined by the governing board. It cannot be a lottery. The criteria must be published no later than five days before the layoff hearing.

    Depending on seniority and credentials held, an employee may have a right to >”BUMP”<(emphasis mine for clarity) another employee who has less seniority. Some districts notify employees for layoff after constructing a bumping trail. Other districts give notice to every teacher within the scope of the RIF and ask the ALJ to decide who is permitted to bump and who will ultimately be laid off after bumping rights have been exercised.

    Are there any exceptions to seniority?

    There are some exceptions to the legal requirement to make layoffs in order of seniority. If a district demonstrates that it has a specific need for employees to teach a specific course or course of study, or to provide services authorized by a pupil personnel services or health credential, a certificated employee who has the necessary training and experience may be retained and others having more seniority may be laid off.

    However, CTA's position is that these exceptions should be narrowly construed and that districts may retain a teacher having specialized certification and lay off a more senior employee only if the retained junior individual currently teaches in an assignment that requires such certification or will be teaching in such an assignment in the next school year.

    Jim, I beg to differ but as you can see in black and white it does in fact apply to teachers.

  • Nontcair

    Students can also succeed in *private* schools and of course, they do.

    We’d have even more of them if people who are forced to pay high taxes to support public schools were able to keep more of their own money so as to afford private school for their kids.

    Once again we see special interests touting what government does for them but ignoring the unsung victims.

    Who cares about collateral damage anyway?

  • caucus member

    Thanks for trying Sue, but you are engaging with people who have an agenda, and it is always going to turn the discussion to talk about what they want to talk about.

    Many of us have decided not to engage in discussions with those few people who ruin this blog with their blather.

    Re bumping specific to special ed teachers: it will never be an issue. There is and has been a critical shortage of special ed teachers for decades in every single state. We actually are not at all worried about protecting our jobs. We are worried about protecting our students.

  • Nontcair

    I don’t like to engage. It clutters the thread and obscures my valid primary points. Having said that,

    A “shortage”. Really.

    Do away with all the regulations which artificially spike demand for special ed teachers, the political motives for labeling kids special ed, and all the impediments to filling the positions and watch that “shortage” *disappear*.

    Almost overnight.

  • J.R.

    You need to hold on, caucus member is correct in regards to special ed teachers. I was making an observation on the contradictions(i.e. Bumping/ seniority)not specifically this situation therefore the OT(off topic)notification.

  • Stacey Smith

    I think the teacher caucus is awesome and I look forward to the conversation and the shared advocacy on behalf of students with disabilities and all students in OUSD. Since Katy mentioned the Karen Mates presentation to the board, I thought I would share that I put together some data on population, disability/impairment category, and proportions using the data OUSD reported to California for 2011-12. For a full breakdown of special education students by disability category (Ms. Mates only includes the top few) and a full breakdown by ethnic subgroup, here’s the link (thank you CAC for the wiki that allows posting and comments!):

    Note: first, Ms. Mates’ data is from May 2012 and is a few months more recent than the reports online which probably explain the slight discrepancy in percentages – even her proportion of special educations students as a percentage of the district has gone up in those few months. Second, keep in mind special education category titles do not do justice to the broader definition each category includes. For example, “emotionally disturbed” is a loaded term but a student in this group may be depressed, have physical symptoms or fears associated with school or personal problems, or exhibit a broad list of other impairments. And many parents have told me their (diagnosed) autism-spectrum students qualified under “speech-language disorder” instead because of the language aspect, suggesting the population of OUSD students who have some form of autism is much higher than the 8.5% reported online.

    Ms. Mates also for some reason only reported data on male special education students and their ethnicity compared to OUSD overall but if you want to see the proportions for all students, you can find it here:

    I think it is important to look at the big picture because in Ms. Mates’ presentation you can’t see the disproportionate under-representation of the Hispanic/Latino population in special education – an issue a number of stakeholder groups have raised concerns about.

    A seemingly minor but significant correction – according to my CASE Handbook in California the definition of special education is “specially designed instruction AND/OR related services”. It’s not just the instruction and that is really important to note – especially because special education is about EDUCATIONAL performance and outcomes and not merely academic success. A student can be passing grade to grade and still need special education and it is critical to remember that special education is for students whose needs cannot be met by modifying the general curriculum. With respect to the “Assessment Teams” I don’t know what Ms. Mates will say but I hope everyone is clear that student study teams (SSTs) are not mentioned or required by law before an assessment or referral for special education is made (thanks again, CASE). I was disturbed to hear that OUSD is telling principals that a few rounds of SST intervention are required by law before referral can occur.

    And I really hope that someone on the board looks at Slide 8 listing the ethnicity of students who are in nonpublic schools and asks why the information isn’t about disability/impairment because THAT is the information we all need to have. About 8% of OUSD students go to separate schools (public, private, residential, and homebound/hospital placements) compared to 4-5% state-wide. These students are there because OUSD can’t meet their needs in-house and for every family I’ve met or heard of that boils down to special education that needs to be in a setting that OUSD can’t provide like home/hospital, or really small classroom setting, or yes, for services and programs and settings that OUSD is not willing to provide even when the family wants to stay in the public school setting – let’s be honest OUSD. And for the record, even the state recognizes that a percentage of students have needs that must be met in these separate settings and it has nothing to do with teachers or programs so to say we are going to bring all these kids back into public school would be politics over substance. I hope that doesn’t happen tomorrow night.

    I find the choice of slide data interesting (although a bit deceptive) and I have to say I’m interested to hear the presentation even though I thought it was all supposed to be about the results of the (yet-to-begin) engagement process — which of course now needs to include this new teacher caucus! I also really look forward to hearing more about the caucus and how contract negotiations progress.

  • Special Ed Parent

    This just came through the distribution list for the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education:

    Open Letter to the OUSD School Board from the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education on behalf of the community that we represent 10.10.12

    As this school year quickly advances, the OUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (CAC) understands that serious challenges must be overcome to provide a high quality Special Education program to OUSD students. We also understand that, while OUSD’s new Special Education Director must respond to those immense challenges with limited staff support, she has the resources and resolve of an entire district and community to assist her. However, the enormity of the task requires a high degree of transparency, communication, and collaboration with the CAC and the stakeholder groups that we represent. This collaboration is especially important in planning for an engagement process that has the far-reaching goal of a shared community vision to improve outcomes for students with Special Needs. It is perhaps why, when the Board passed a motion and directed the Superintendent to create an engagement process on June 25 of this year, the CAC was the first community group cited as a key collaborator. After all, the CAC is a state-mandated advisory group to the district which is composed of and represents parents of individuals with exceptional needs in public or private schools, parents of other pupils enrolled in school, pupils and adults with disabilities, regular education teachers, special education teachers and other school personnel, representatives of other public and private agencies, and persons concerned with the needs of individuals with exceptional needs.

    At the June meeting, the Superintendent was asked to report back to the Board this month about the progress of the engagement process. We regret to inform you that such process has not yet begun and that early discussion about it has excluded the CAC and all the many stakeholders that we represent. We ask that the Board direct the Superintendent to immediately begin meaningful and effective engagement and that it affirm the role of the CAC at all stages of the planning process. Fundamentally, the entire organization of OUSD must show commitment to its engagement standards, to this process, and to this community.

    Our key aim since June has been to ensure that a representative group of people be convened for defining stakeholder groups, helping to identify the forms that engagement would take, setting a timeline and benchmarks for engagement, and setting the communication and accountability structures for the process. Because the special needs community faces unique barriers to participation, the CAC has for almost a decade been advocating for more inclusive approaches. We must create multiple avenues of engagement to meet the diverse needs of this community. Without this, OUSD will continue to miss most of our families and the various stakeholder groups that we represent. They will continue to be disregarded when key decisions are made that directly affect them. We ask that the Board direct the Superintendent to work with the CAC to create multiple avenues for communication and for ensuring that these important voices are heard. Guided by its newly adopted engagement standards, the organization of OUSD must fully own and protect the quality of the engagement process that will improve outcomes for children with special needs.

    Tragically, the challenges that we must face have grown immensely since June. The dramatic changes that the Board motion intended to hold off have occurred, namely: massive increases in class size and caseloads, the generalized transfer and reorganization of resource specialists and the special education department at large, and the significant restructuring of key positions. We have received urgent and numerous appeals for support from families and staff in our community about the adverse impact on students. These appeals have been well-documented both at our monthly CAC meetings and in other public venues, including board meetings. Many students have been left without instructors. Teachers have too many students to be able to teach. The community is united in its agreement that children and schools are being harmed more than ever. This must end.

    Together we can take on the challenges that Special Education faces. We can make sure that the voices of those most affected are heard. Our students will not be successful while OUSD leadership continues to hold the community at length and listens only to the voices it chooses to hear. We need your help to ensure that, from now on, we are moving together on the same path so that we can achieve the ultimate goal: better educational outcomes for all students.

  • ousd watcher

    Wow! I was watching the board meeting online and it looks like the school board is very unhappy with the state of special ed in Oakland in all ways.

    It was interesting that the new director was talking about starting a parent speaker series, but doesn’t know how many special education students are enrolled or how many teacher vacancies there are. Hopefully she will not be distracted by these extras, which sound good, but don’t solve fundamental structural problems.

  • ProudOaklandTeacher

    First to Katy Murphy, thank you for highlighting the work our caucus is doing on behalf of our students through the OEA.

    Second to the parent of a young person with Autism, thank you for supporting the work that teachers do to support students with disabilities and recognize that we too must have time to eat, sleep and raise our own families. Congratulations on your son’s success in college.

    Third to Nontcair I want to start by quoting your comment,
    “One of the more openly unbridled demands for protectionism that you’ll see.

    (1) class size limits: more teaching positions
    (2) caseload limits: fewer working hours
    (3) limited school assignments: territorial monopolies”
    I wonder if you have ever worked as a special education teacher in OUSD, I highly doubt it. I have and I think it would blow your mind to do my job for just one day. If I am being honest, until I spent my summer working in a class for students with severe autism I didn’t truly understand the need for so many adults in one class. But after just four short weeks I understood that every adult was very much needed and every adult worked hard all day. Yes it costs more to educate students with exceptional needs, but that doesn’t mean we dont do it, Parents and teachers have already had that fight and IDEA was passed as a result.
    Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my job. I get to be a part of learning for students who it doesn’t come to easily. I get to help transform my students in wonderful, independent and successful young adults. But, I also know that at my current caseload limit which is 25% higher than any other nearby district I cannot give them all that they deserve and need, there is simply not enough of me to go around, let alone enough hours in the day. It might mean more teaching positions but it will also mean that my students have the best shot at an engaging and meaningful education.
    I support the work of the CAC and the OEA Special Education Caucus because they are committed to the education of all children, no matter the cost. I believe that the Special Ed caucus can engage with parents, students and Programs for Exceptional Children in ways that improve the experience of students with special needs in Oakland Unified.
    I am also hopeful that our new director will forge a new path, one in which PEC connects with, listens to and engages all teachers. She should start with introducing herself and visitng some classrooms, it might make her claims of “engagement strategies” seem a little more realistic.

  • Nontcair

    One reason why special ed could be described as “under-staffed” is because so many OUSD employees are OVER-paid, which leaves less money on the table to staff special ed classrooms.

    I’ve never been paid to work with special ed kids.

    Many on this board have an agenda. Why is it that the only one which upsets them is *mine*?

    #13’s bombast just shows you why public education is such a disaster. You have all these college educated “experts” who run the institution talking jargon to one another, and using the kids as guinea pigs and the taxpayers as cash cows.

  • J.R.



    If you follow this link and open up the .ppt presentation you will see see 13 eligibility categories(11 of which are fairly specific and 2 which are overly broad and possibly abused). These two categories are a major reason for the surge in spec ed placements.


    My point is that these people are not overpaid, but that there a probably far too many kids who should not be in spec ed(if this were to be corrected there would be less personnel needed and more money available).

    In my opinion I think the district admin people are in over their head and clueless when it comes to special education and all the issues involved with it.

  • Observer

    Non-because you’re agenda is anarchy. You quite clearly believe that you should never have to pay a single dime for the good of all or anyone. Your belief is not the majority, the vast majority. You are entitled to your beliefs but you should really seek an alternative lifestyle as it’s impossible for you to have much more than a mosquito effect by posting on an education blog in Oakland when what you really want is an enormous societal, world-wide change. It’s not going to happen and by most counts, people are moving toward community not away from it.

    An island! Can you afford your own private island?

  • Nontcair

    #18 wrote: there[‘s] probably far too many kids who should not be in spec ed

    I already pointed that out in #11.

  • Nontcair

    It’s true. This blog has far too little exposure to bring amount global anarchy.

    I’m just going to have be content with stopping socialism here in Alameda County.

  • Observer

    In the most self-described progressive part of the country? Wish it was remotely interesting to watch a person bang their head against the wall.

  • Nontcair

    If I can’t accomplish it by Election Day, I’ll give up.

  • Yazstremski

    Nontcair…can we have your word on that…give up by Election Day…I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • Gee yu

    OEA Special Education Caucus is not new it was formed in the early 2000’s by four oea members. Trish helped it out alot now that she is back… it has been brought into the spotlight…..