Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
The California Department of Education said it would investigate whether the San Francisco Unified School District violated federal regulations by improperly denying summer school services to students with special needs in order to cut costs.
The state investigation follows a report by The Bay Citizen, sister site of California Watch, that Lisa Miller – the district’s head of middle school special education – directed teachers and staff to consult with her prior to authorizing summer school for those students because the cost had become “exorbitant.”
“My big concern is whether they’re doing something illegal, in which case they have to correct it,” said Donna DeMartini, an education programs specialist at the Department of Education who will lead the investigation.
Special education teachers and attorneys said the directive – issued in a Jan. 4 email obtained by The Bay Citizen – violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which prohibits administrators from influencing a student’s education plan or denying services based on cost.
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DeMartini has been reviewing the district’s special education practices since last year, partially in response to complaints that some students had not received federally mandated benefits. The state reviewed the education plans of about 80 of the district’s more than 6,000 students with special needs and found that the district had violated more than 100 state and federal regulations.
Summer school special education – called extended school year, or ESY – is meant to help students whose progress during the regular school year could be undermined by long breaks from school.
In an email to The Bay Citizen on Tuesday, school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe dismissed allegations that Miller’s directive violated the law.
“Some staff were in the habit of offering ESY to any special education student, rather than applying the law correctly,” she wrote. “Ms. Miller did not single handedly make the decision to address this issue. The district is training staff in how to analyze an offer of ESY.”
According to the district, 2,695 special education students were offered summer services this year, but officials would not say how many actually received them.
“No specific parent has had any grievance with the district regarding ESY since Ms. Miller sent the email you have written about,” Blythe wrote. “In fact, the number of students eligible for ESY went up last year as more training began to clarify the purpose of ESY.”
Advocates for students said Miller’s email fit a statewide pattern of school districts circumventing special education laws to save money.
“Miller’s email demonstrates what most districts do without putting it in writing,” said Rony Sagy, a San Francisco attorney, who is handling a lawsuit against the state on allegations of failing to enforce district compliance with special education regulations.
Sagy filed the lawsuit against the Department of Education last spring on behalf of the California Concerned Parents Association, a group of parents of students with special needs from roughly 20 school districts, including San Francisco. The organization began in Morgan Hill, where in 2008, parents filed a complaint with the school district contending that their children had been illegally denied appropriate summer school programs.
One of those parents, Linda McNulty, said several students went without summer school for two years in a row while the state investigated the matter.
Giorgos Kazanis, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said he could not comment on the case because it was “still tied up in litigation.”