Taking back special ed

Figuring the county has educated Chico students long enough, the CUSD wants the expensive- to-run programs for its own

SCHOOL DAYS Nolan McIntosh, shown here at age 3 when he was attending preschool at Loma Vista, is now mainstreamed into a kindergarten class at Marigold Elementary. The Chico Unified School District says the transition from county schools’ administration to the CUSD’s should be so smooth the students won’t even notice.

SCHOOL DAYS Nolan McIntosh, shown here at age 3 when he was attending preschool at Loma Vista, is now mainstreamed into a kindergarten class at Marigold Elementary. The Chico Unified School District says the transition from county schools’ administration to the CUSD’s should be so smooth the students won’t even notice.

Courtesy Of Toni McIntosh

Information, please: The Chico Unified School District has set up two meetings for parents to learn more about how the transfer of special-education services from the Butte County Office of Education to the CUSD would affect their children. Parents can come to the Large Conference Room at the District Office on either Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. or Nov. 16 at 1 p.m.

Dozens of Chico children get their daily lessons in a setting known as “special ed,” designed for students with emotional, physical or learning impairments. Their needs can usually be met in a classroom designed just for them or in a traditional classroom with some extra help.

If all goes according to plan, these children won’t notice anything different next year, as the Chico Unified School District moves to take over most of the special-education programs that have been run, subcontractor-style, by the Butte County Office of Education since the 1970s.

The CUSD, after getting the go-ahead from the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) in September, petitioned the state to let it take over many of the services provided to Chico children with speech problems, visual impairments, various degrees of handicaps and those who use wheelchairs. That includes 38 teachers, more than 100 aides and at least 200 students. The district expects to hear back next month, and the changes, if approved, would take place July 1, 2002.

“We want to be more responsible for educating our kids,” explained Bob Feaster, director of pupil personnel services for the CUSD. “The issue isn’t really [about] saving money.”

Even so, in the past year districts across California have taken back special ed, sparked at least in part by issues of finance: The state isn’t reimbursing the schools enough to cover their costs for serving those students, and rather than take a loss, county offices like BCOE are passing the difference along to the districts in the form of a “billback.” Last year, the CUSD paid $1.3 million to the BCOE to run the programs.

Under the plan, Loma Vista School, which has been leased to BCOE for $1 a year, would be run by the CUSD. But special-ed kids aren’t just at Loma Vista; they’re integrated throughout the district in classes designed for their needs. Some have been mainstreamed into “regular” classes, and others step out of class to visit a speech therapist.

Some programs would not transfer over, including a few of the classes for the emotionally disturbed and autistic children. For now, the CUSD is leaving the impaired-hearing program as it is, with BCOE, along with infant services.

Meanwhile, districts in Durham, Gridley, Oroville, Palermo and Paradise have also requested to take back some of the programs—in most cases speech therapy—currently run by BCOE.

On Oct. 25, the Chico Unified Teachers Association presented to the CUSD a “demand to bargain” and at the same time asked for all the paperwork concerning communication about and agreements on the proposed special-ed transfer.

CUTA President Dan Sours said the demand itself is routine: The union is going to be representing nearly 40 new teachers. And the request for the documents is so CUTA can learn what issues it should be bargaining on.

Sours said that even though the CUTA asked to be involved in developing the plan, district officials went ahead without the union. “I had wished that we had been part of the beginning of the process and we weren’t,” he said.

“We’re working to protect everyone involved,” said Sours, who gave as an example the possibility that rather than take the perhaps-lower pay offered by the CUSD, a special-ed teacher might just quit. “Would that create an opening in Chico Unified or BCOE?” he wondered.

BCOE Superintendent Jerry McGuire said that the CUSD actually pays teachers and aides more than the county office. But there will be a hit: Since the local districts are taking over about two-thirds of the county office’s special-education services, BCOE will be out about $700,000 in operating funds, and McGuire anticipates five or six office staff members there will be laid off.

Jim Sands, deputy superintendent for the CUSD, said not much should change for the teachers and aides if the plan goes through. The employees will move over to the district’s salary schedule at their current level of experience. The CUSD would also add an administrator or two.

“The hope is that we can be more efficient,” Sands said. “We don’t know if we’re going to save any money.” But a June 2001 fiscal review commissioned by SELPA, which is made up of superintendents representing 14 Butte County districts, implied that districts could save money by going that route.

“These are very time- and labor-intense kids we’re talking about,” Feaster said. Since 1975, federal and state law has required public schools to educate all children, regardless of special needs or expense.

That’s a good thing, of course, but McGuire pointed out that when the federal government made that mandate, it also promised to fund the programs at a level of 40 percent. Instead, it’s been only about 11 percent.

He doubts the CUSD will save money by running the programs itself, but he concurs that that was not the district’s goal. “They will be operating their own programs for their own kids. Part of it is just internal control.”

Sands and Feaster said a lot of rumors have been going around that teachers and aides will lose their jobs, or children will be shuffled around and classes crammed together to save money. Some parents worry they will suddenly have to justify their child’s presence in the program. That’s not the case, the administrators say.

“We pick the programs back up and put them down and nothing much changes,” Feaster said. “We don’t plan on moving a single class, physically.”

McGuire again turned to the law: When there’s a transfer of services, "You can’t provide the kids with a lesser program."