Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | March 4, 2008

Our point exactly: A new approach for special ed

When it comes to special education, it’s tempting to view the entire process as a no-win situation.

School districts are laden with unfunded or partially funded mandates from both state and federal governments. These mandates dictate to school districts how they must handle special education students, but do not fully fund implementation.

In fact, school districts receive only 18 to 20 percent of the cost of delivering special education services from state and federal governments. The federal government has previously promised to fund 40 percent of special education mandates.

Not only that, colleges and universities are graduating fewer students in special education-related fields, meaning it’s harder and more expensive to hire qualified special education teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapists and similar professionals.

That means that special education parents – who must advocate for their special needs children – and school district administrators – who must allocate scarce resources – are often at odds with one another.

It makes for a relationship that is frequently adversarial and stressful.

A group of parents and administrators in the Morgan Hill Unified School District have decided to try a different approach, one that’s highlighted by collaboration, communication, transparency and accountability.

In addition to the two of us, those meetings have included parents Linda McNulty, Veronica Hoyle-Kent and Cindy Gion and district administrators Bonnie Tognazzini, Jay Totter, Michael Johnson and Sally Price Welsh.

We’ve had a series of meetings in which we’ve had frank but respectful discussions about what special education parents and school district administrators have in common and how we can work together to ease the burden that we share.

Not surprisingly, we’ve also found a few places where we disagree.

We agree that the burden of unfunded mandates is one that impacts both special education parents and school districts, so we will explore ways to pool our resources to lobby state and federal officials to fix that.

Because unfunded special education mandates also impact general education students, we hope to include general education parents and teachers in our advocacy work.

We agree that in the current budget climate – MHUSD must cut at least $3 million from next fiscal year’s expenditures, a number that’s very likely to climb – we must work together to find ways to use parent volunteers to reduce costs.

Special education parents represent an untapped source of ideas and volunteer manpower, and we’re going to work to find ways to take advantage of that resource.

We agree that special education parents have a unique vantage point on how to increase efficiency and reduce costs, and we’re going to work  to find ways to improve communication between administrators and parents to implement of as many of those ideas as possible.

To achieve those rather lofty-sounding goals, we’ve spent a good deal of time on the gritty hard work of agreeing on a framework in which we can cooperate.

At tonight’s Morgan Hill Unified School District school board meeting, we’ll be presenting details of our plan, but we’re offering you a preview now of the Special Education Advisory Committee.

Three special education parents – selected by their peers – will meet with the superintendent every other month to present parent suggestions and concerns. The superintendent will work on those issues and update the committee members on district progress.

In alternating months, the parent representatives and district administrators will update the special education community on progress on those issues at a community meeting. In addition, the special education director will present one “hot button” issue that can benefit from extra parental involvement. Finally, the committee will seek new parental input on items of concern.

The committee will not deal with specific, individual issues related to any students’ individualized education plans (IEPs). Instead, it will deal with broader policy-related issues that might crop up in the district.

We understand that special education parents won’t always agree with school district administrators’ decisions, and that district administrators won’t always agree with special education parents’ suggestions.

But we hope that a new approach that emphasizes collaboration, communication, transparency and accountability and our shared goals rather than our differences can be a step in improving the relationship between parents and the district, and serve as a model for other districts to follow.

We’re ready to try.

Note: This special joint column was written with Dr. Alan Nishino, superintendent of the Morgan Hill Unified School District.

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