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School official targeted special education program to cut costs

Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen The San Francisco Unified School District's offices 

A San Francisco Unified School District administrator urged teachers to re-evaluate whether to offer summer school to special education students as a way to cut costs, a move that special education teachers and attorneys say violates federal regulations.

Lisa Miller, the district’s head of middle school special education, said in a Jan. 4 email to her staff that the cost of summer school – known as extended school year, or ESY – had become “exorbitant” and instructed all middle school special education staff not to authorize the service without her approval.

“At this time, I am asking that all middle school special education staff consult with me PRIOR TO authorizing/offering ESY,” she wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Bay Citizen, sister site of California Watch.

The directive appears to violate the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which explicitly requires each child’s special education plan to be agreed upon by the student’s family, educators and disability experts, not district administrators. The regulations also prohibit districts from denying student services based on cost.

Miller wrote that she would be reviewing summer school offers in students’ Individualized Education Programs – contracts between the district and families detailing agreed-upon services – and “asking for corrections by the IEP team, when appropriate.”

“I do apologize for the strong tone of this email,” she wrote, “yet I am responsible for tracking costs.”

James Galgano, a San Francisco special education teacher, was one of the email’s recipients.

“I printed it out and sent it back to her with a handwritten note saying, ‘This violates the law,' ” he said.

District officials declined to comment on Miller’s email.

Miller sent the message while the California Department of Education was conducting an audit of the district’s special education practices last school year. Although unaware of Miller’s email, the auditors concluded last spring that some children were improperly denied various services. The state has yet to tabulate how many students were affected.

Donna DeMartini, education program specialist for the department who participated in the audit, said she was surprised by Miller’s directive when she learned of it from The Bay Citizen last month, and even more so that Miller would distribute it via email.

“It’s something you would not put in writing because it’s against the federal regulations,” she said. “You cannot use cost. That’s not a criteria for providing services.”

Thousands of San Francisco special education students depend on summer services, including reading instruction, speech and language therapy, and physical and behavioral support. A lack of year-round services can jeopardize their chances of moving into mainstream classes and graduating from high school on time.

Miller’s email has outraged some teachers and child advocates who have long complained that California schools have been quietly implementing illegal cost-saving measures amid the statewide school budget crisis.

“Districts always claim to not make decisions about services to students with disabilities based upon cost,” said Katy Franklin, head of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. “But this email clearly illustrates that cost was the driving factor behind a concerted, deliberate push to deny services to students with disabilities.”

Miller declined repeated interview requests, but wrote in an email to The Bay Citizen that the 151-word note to teachers and staff had been “taken out of context” and was part of an effort to train her staff to authorize summer services only when appropriate.

“In order to assure the highest quality services are provided with the limited funding that is available, ESY should not automatically be provided to all students with IEPs,” she wrote.

United Educators of San Francisco In an email, administrator Lisa Miller urged teachers to re-evaluate offering summer school to special education students. 

Miller added, “No changes to any student’s IEP have been made outside of the IEP process.”

Although extended school year services are designed to prevent summer breaks from undermining progress made by children with special needs, a lack of clear evidence that a student will regress is not a reason to deny the service if the Individualized Education Programs team deems it necessary.

“By law, the IEP reigns supreme, and it’s not the district that writes the IEP,” said Susan Solomon, executive vice president of United Educators of San Francisco. “If everyone on an IEP team recommends a service, it’s not because they think the district needs to spend more money, it’s because it’s what the child needs.”

According to the district, 2,695 students had extended school year services in their Individualized Education Programs this year, up from 2,516 in 2011.

But Maggie Roberts, an attorney at Disability Rights California, said that fiscal issues have made it increasingly difficult for students to receive summer school special education in California.

“We’ve gotten an increased amount of calls from parents who are concerned that they’re not getting ESY services,” she said.

Jamie Sheldon, a special education teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Academic Middle School, said the district began offering summer school to fewer students with learning disabilities after Miller met with teachers last spring.

“Lisa talked about which students needed services and which didn’t, and she did talk about it being a money issue,” Sheldon said. “It was my impression that if you felt a student needed ESY, you had to pass that on to her so she could okay it.”

Laura Faer, education rights director at Public Counsel Law Center, said such impressions were damaging to students’ educations.

“When a letter like this comes from a supervisor at the district level, staff will not be helping an individual child and creating a plan, but rather they will be concerned that that district will crack down on them if they don’t conserve money,” she said.

In fact, she said, checking with administrators prior to offering services would disrupt the Individualized Education Program process. When a program team formalizes an education plan, the district has to begin providing the agreed-upon services right away.

“Once the family leaves the meeting, they have a commitment from the district,” Faer said. “You can’t go back and say, ‘Guess what?’ An off-site administrator who has neither met the child nor attended the IEP should not be making decisions about services.” 

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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