14 Apr Special-ed workers: Cuts could jeopardize students

April 14, 2016

By: Robert Nott

Source: santafenewmexican.com

Special-education providers warned lawmakers Wednesday that staffing cuts could mean a loss in critical services for some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Educators and specialists from across New Mexico voiced concerns to the Legislative Finance Committee about a recent Public Education Department analysis that said about 40 of the state’s 89 school districts, as well as some state-chartered schools, have under- or overreported the number of special-education workers — such as occupational therapists, counselors and language pathologists — who are directly serving their students.

That data analysis, released earlier this year, left school district leaders across the state scrambling to determine how reporting errors might affect their future finances. Some school officials said they feared the state would force them to fire some of their special-education workers before the start of the next school year to make up for overreporting in the past.

Paul Aguilar, deputy secretary of finance and operations for the Public Education Department, said earlier this month that he expected an overall “net zero impact” from the special-education reporting errors. He said Wednesday it is likely that 30 of the state’s 1,800 special-education providers will lose their jobs.

He said student services won’t be affected by the cuts, but special-education workers disputed that Wednesday.

One woman told the Legislative Finance Committee that her hours will be cut from five days a week to a day and a half, which will have an effect on her 42 students, “some of whom are suicidal.”

Another woman said she is being cut from two days a week to one in a rural school district that had not regularly provided special-education services for six years.

A third provider said such cuts could lead to staff members’ student caseloads steeply increasing to as many as 50 from 15 or so previously.

Special-education workers also told lawmakers that they question the way the Public Education Department defines “direct services” to students.

For example, Aguilar told the Legislative Finance Committee that a social worker who is supposed to be working exclusively with special-education students may end up spending 25 percent of his or her work time assisting other students or dealing with work-related issues not directly tied to students’ care — and that isn’t how the special-education system is supposed to work.

But special-education experts who work in the classroom say their services shouldn’t be viewed in such a narrow scope.

Carla Wilhite, president of New Mexico Occupational Therapy Association, said her job includes several tasks that benefit a student but don’t involve spending time with the child.

“I have to screen, evaluate, write reports, perhaps prepare assisted technology or adaptive equipment that will help that child benefit in the classroom or help them be able to participate,” she said. “… That is the true definition of ‘direct service.’

“What PED is trying to do is invalidate some of those services,” she added.

Still, Wilhite said, occupational therapists and other providers should not be working outside the realm of special education — by spending their time helping other students, for instance. The state has a right to hold districts accountable for that, she said.

While Aguilar told lawmakers there was nothing unusual about this year’s audit of special-education services, Moriarty-Edgewood Schools Superintendent Tom Sullivan said in a letter Wednesday to the Legislative Finance Committee chairman, Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, that the procedure was unexpected.

“I really take exception with statements by PED that this was merely standard procedure,” Sullivan said in the letter. “Having been either a District Supt. or the Supts Association Director for the last 20+ years, I assure you that neither the process nor the timing has ever been seen before.”

Wilhite also questioned the timing of the audit. In an interview after the committee hearing, she said she found it “peculiar” that the state agency released the special-education audit shortly after the legislative session ended with lawmakers forging a tight budget because of declining oil and gas revenues.

“The state could possibly save millions of dollars if schools have to pay that money back or not fill positions [next year],” she said.

Some members of the Legislative Finance Committee voiced concerns about the situation.

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, told Aguilar and Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera that he heard their department had been bullying school districts into compliance with the special-education rules. Skandera denied that claim.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Albuquerque, told Aguilar and Skandera that he perceived a lack of communication between the department, districts and special-education workers. “The right thing done for perceived wrong reasons sows seeds of distrust,” he said.

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