Concern over special education funding
April 28, 2016
By: Joline Gutierrez Krueger
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of the best spots at my kids’ middle school was the social worker’s office, a place filled with games and toys and lots and lots of snacks.
Sometimes, the social worker told me, the easiest way to get troubled children to open up was to feed them – come for the food, stay for the chat.
Those were some rocky years for several of my kids, and at times it felt like I was in that office at least as much as they were. Being there also gave me a glimpse into her crucial and busy role in so many lives.
Like all school social workers, her time was largely taken up by her work with kids according to their Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, which details the services the school is mandated to provide to meet the learning needs of special education students.
Those services are provided by teachers and ancillary services staff – the occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, diagnosticians, counselors and social workers. Besides having actual “face time” with the student, as mandated in the IEP, they are also responsible for the paperwork, conferring with teachers and providers and parents like me, travel time and all the other ancillary work of an ancillary services staffer.
Recently, however, consternation and confusion have shaken the special education sector with reports of ancillary services jobs being on the line because of a potential massive deficit and a surprise change in the formula that determines how much special education money is funneled to each school district from the state Public Education Department – reports that the PED says are being misinterpreted.
Late Tuesday, APS spokesman Rigo Chavez confirmed that the district’s special education department and the PED have been working closely together to resolve their issues so that everything runs smoothly next school year.
But special education workers say this is the first time in decades that PED has asked schools to use this specific formula and that staff fear losing hours or their jobs entirely.
Put simply, the workers worry that the formula considers only the “face time” hours a worker has with each student as per the IEP but not everything else. According to a March 21 memo from the Albuquerque Public Schools special education budget office to ancillary staff members, a PED audit had discovered unexplained “gaps” between the service minutes from IEPs and the actual hours an employee worked that were larger than about 15 percent, considered reasonable prep time.
“Although some have been told it (the audit) is not for the purpose of pulling back money from districts, it appears to many that it is exactly that,” Kirk Carpenter, president of the New Mexico School Superintendents’ Association, wrote in a letter dated Feb. 26 to Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.
One frightened social worker put it this way: “It’s just another sign that Hanna Skandera doesn’t understand how we do our jobs.”
The Albuquerque Teachers Federation used harsher words in a motion the union passed earlier this month:
“Whereas, it is clear that the Martinez Administration is now attempting to destroy support services for our students who have an IEP in the same manner that it destroyed mental heath services in our state; and, Whereas, it is time to expose this shady practice to the entire state and demand that the services our students deserve remain funded at the same level as in previous decades.”
The motion also announces the union’s decision to organize and participate in a national “Walk-In” May 4 at city public high schools in protest. (For more information, search Walk-In for Public Education on Facebook).
PED officials insist it’s all one big misunderstanding.
“Someone is playing fast and loose with the facts,” said Paul Aguilar, PED’s deputy secretary of finance and operations. “It’s really not as complicated as people are making it.”
And not as dire, he said. Without getting too much into the weeds – because this is a weedy subject – Aguilar said that every year by law each school district reports data to the PED for funding purposes, including from special education. During the usual audit of the data, discrepancies were noted in the figures being presented by some school districts concerning the number of hours worked by ancillary staff members and the corresponding number of hours listed on IEPs.
Aguilar said those districts, including APS, were asked to recalculate those figures using a formula that has been a part of the process for years but not always implemented.
“What we’re saying is some of the numbers looked low,” Aguilar said. “In some cases, it appeared that a staff member wasn’t providing any service.”
Aguilar further explained that it doesn’t mean the PED plans only to fund the hours listed on an IEP. Reports of job cuts and budget cuts are simply untrue, he said.
“We are just asking that they help us understand their numbers,” he said. Aguilar said his office has made efforts to ease the confusion among the school districts.
But as late as Friday, the PED continued to receive letters of concern.
“While we support the state’s effort to accurately collect data and ensure the delivery of services to special education students, we are concerned about the timing and methods that are being used to elicit such data and the impact that it may have on students,” wrote Naomi Sandwiess, executive director of Parents Reaching Out, a nonprofit representing families of children with special needs. The letter was signed by 155 parents.
“There’s a major disconnect here, and it’s a very real stressor,” said Ellen Bernstein, ATF president. “It’s hard to do something concrete because everybody’s pretending it’s not happening.”
Which reminds me again of that social worker’s office and how it makes sense for parties from both sides to come together in such a space to chat, clear the air and come to some consensus as to what is really occurring to the school’s most vulnerable population.
They’re going to need lots of snacks.