State investigating Iowa City schools’ practices in special education
May 31, 2016
By: Molly Duffy
The state Department of Education opened two reviews of the Iowa City school district this week over the way it runs its special education program.
According to a May 4 letter from the state department, one review was spurred by the district’s failure to comply with corrective measures laid out by the Grant Wood Area Education Association, which monitors 32 area school districts including Iowa City for violations of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Those measures were meant to correct “documentation issues that were systemic and needed to be addressed,” said Maria Cashman, the AEA’s director of special education.
Many of the issues identified, Cashman said, centered on individualized education plans — a document that outlines services for a student who receives special education. Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, are developed by professionals within the district, the AEA and the student’s parents.
Ideally, IEPs keep that group of adults informed about the kind of instruction a student is receiving.
Instead, Cashman cited non-compliance issues with 114 of the 163 IEPs she reviewed last fall — many of which involved a failure to properly notify parents of changes to their child’s education plan.
A fiscal review team from the state also was at the district this week to conduct the other review, investigating what it described as irregularities in the district’s special education funding.
The fiscal review team is gathering information to explain a significant percentage increase in special education funding this year compared with fiscal year 2014.
The other investigators are conducting what they call an accreditation review to seek solutions to the district’s failure to comply with the federal disabilities act, said state education department spokeswoman Staci Hupp.
Teams are on site for four days that began Tuesday.
Hupp said it’s typical for the state to review financial irregularities. Opening an review over compliance with the IDEA, though, happens less often.
“It’s rare that a district and an AEA cannot resolve their differences and work it out and we have to step in,” Hupp said.
Neither Superintendent Stephen Murley nor Carmen Dixon, the district’s special services director, responded by late Thursday to requests for comment.
The district was notified by the AEA in January of the issues, a letter addressed to Murley from Cashman shows.
According to the letter, meeting notices — which are meant to ensure parents are given the opportunity to be at a meeting about their child’s education plan — were created after the meeting date in 11 instances.
In 18 cases, a child’s education plan was modified significantly without documentation of parent agreement, the letter shows.
The law also requires the district provide parents with written notice of educational changes before those changes are implemented. In 49 cases, “prior written notices” were dated after the date of the services’ implementation.
Cashman also found instances of the district not providing significant explanation for students not participating in regular physical education, art, media and counseling, according to the letter, and for failing to explain the support individual students needed from paraeducators and bus attendants.
While the lack of documentation is troubling, Cashman said, it does not definitively show that parents were not notified of IEP changes.
“What I’m saying is there was no documentation if parents were aware or not,” Cashman said.
The AEA required the district to correct those issues by providing it with evidence that new IEP meetings — with proper notice and documentation — were held. District employees were also required to attend professional development.
The AEA set a June 1 deadline to comply.
The district complied with the AEA’s training requirement, Cashman said.
But according to the letter from the state education department notifying the district of its reviews, the district has not complied with all of the AEA’s corrective actions and “has specifically stated an intention to fail to comply on the timeline required.”
“Our agency and the Iowa City school district have been in continuous dialogue since then (January),” Cashman said. “We do know the district disagreed with the corrective actions that needed to take place and the timeline.”
The AEA set the deadline in an effort to address the issues before next school year. Legally, the AEA could have given the district up to a year, Cashman said.
Hupp said the state opened the accreditation review this week because it was clear the deadline wouldn’t be met.