Last week 11 parents spoke before the Flagler County School Board to protest a decision that may affect some 1,900 special education students. As part of a reorganization, the district plans to eliminate half its “staffing specialist” positions, reducing the number of advocates who represent special education students in their legally-required education plans. All 11 opposed the plan and spoke forcefully and at times emotionally about what they anticipate will be unfavorable impacts on their children.
The district disagrees, projecting a sunnier outlook and justifying the change as necessary: the existing system was not improving outcomes.
The issue has caused a rift between the district and the special-education community in the county—about 14 percent of district students are in special education, with vastly varying needs—while bringing to light how the Flagler district is reorganizing a department struggling against relatively low outcomes, and the somewhat intricate process districts must comply with when developing education plans for special education students. Those plans are very different from those that apply to the general population, where matters are less individualized.
The plan can be more than a dozen pages long and is very detailed, amounting to a health biography and visioning document for the student. It provides background about the student, what the student’s diagnoses are, what health, emotional or behavioral issues are in play, what goals are to be set for the year, what accommodations must be provided (a student with dyslexia, for example, may need twice the normal amount of testing time to finish the work), and so on. Everything that relates to the child’s development and needs is in the plan, which is almost always referred to by its ubiquitous acronym: IEP. The IEP team by law consists of a special education teacher, a general education teacher (if there is one), any of the therapists involved, a representative from the district called an LEA (for Local Education Agency), and a staffing specialist. At least one IPE meeting is held every year for each student, several more a year if the student’s special needs are more pronounced.
Staffing specialists “are a watchdog for you,” says Stephen Furnari, the administrator of the county’s 150-member special-education support group and the coordinator of last week’s parent appearances before the board, “so it sort of creates accountability with the staff to make sure they’re following what’s required in the IEP.” The specialists are trained by the Department of Education to ensure that education plans are applied objectively, ensuring that the district prioritizes the student’s best interests and accommodates parental concerns.
There are 10 such specialists in the district. Their numbers will be reduced to five come next year.
No one is losing a job. The specialists whose positions are being eliminated are being shifted back to classrooms as teachers, says Tim King, who heads the district’s special education department. Though parents claim the district is “saving” $500,000, King said he didn’t know where that figure was coming from. “I don’t know if this is a cost-saving,” he said, but wasn’t certain if there would be a net reduction in costs to the district. “I don’t think this is eliminating base positions,” he said.
Addressing the larger concerns, King said the issue is being mischaracterized as more dire than it is, while its purpose and direction has not been given its due.
Parents who spoke to the board see the reorganization as upsetting staffing specialists—who don’t necessarily want to go back to the classroom—and reducing advocacy for students, and was carried out with no knowledge by or involvement of parents. And it is creating a different system that approximates a conflict of interest if those leading IEP meetings are the same educators teaching the special education student, rather than a more neutral staffing specialist. “If educators are guiding an IEP meeting,” Robin Hosford-Bradshaw, a teacher, asked the board, “how are they going to handle themselves if they come under attack from parents when a child is underperforming?” Objectivity would suffer, she said.
Stephen Furnari, the administrator of the county’s 150-member special-education support group and the coordinator of last week’s appearances before the board, said the group has developed a working relationship with the district, meeting with Superintendent Jim Tager quarterly and with King monthly, with good developments. “We’re on the radar of a lot of professionals with really positive things happening,” Furnari said. “That’s why we can’t understand why they’d make a decision like this, which would undermine the foundation of our program.” He drew a parallel with the district’s contracting with Social Sentinel, the social media surveillance company, saying that was also done with no involvement from parents or students.
Because of alienation pre-dating Tager, parents in the special-education community had been pulling out their children from the program, home-schooling or choosing other alternatives and feeling as if the school district was “not a partner.” That started to change with Tager, Furnari said—then this: the decision to eliminate the staffing specialists, which blindsided the community. “They didn’t talk to us,” Furnari said, “they didn’t talk to the staffing specialists, they didn’t talk to the teachers, they didn’t talk to the principals, they made a decision, who knows where the money is being spent now, and that’s it.”
King disputes the lack of communications. “We have feedback from parents, we have talked to the advocacy group, I think there’s a disagreement on what input looks like,” King said. “They have the ability to be heard and they have been heard.” And he said the reorganization is not a policy change but an administrative issue, which is why the board has not been more closely involved.
King said that while the reorganization is taking place, it is being misperceived either as something new or as a reduction of services or advocacy. It is neither. “Staffing specialists will remain in that impartial role,” he said. “Right now a teacher or an administrator can serve as an LEA,” King said, using the acronym for “local education agency”—essentially, that means the representative of the district. “But a teacher or administrator right now would not serve as the facilitator for IEP meetings under what they call the facilitative model. Right now that’s only a staffing specialist, and as we move forward that will only be a staffing specialist.”
The larger purpose of the re-organization is this: The district is returning to a system it had in place three years ago, and redirecting the staffing specialists to provide more “continuity” in students’ progression from grade to grade. In other words, the same staffing specialist will now oversee a special education student’s IEP from kindergarten through 12th grade, which would enhance advocacy rather than diminish it.
Could just five staffing specialists provide that attention to 1,900 students? “The needs and severity of the students vary, so some programs are very involved, other programs are less involved,” King said, noting that about half the students who are integrated, or mainstreamed, with the general school population generally require less individualized attention than do others. Nevertheless, “This is not a hard line,” he said of the staffing levels. “We can come in, we can add positions if we feel our staff is not able to meet those needs of those students in those programs.”
The system in place next year will be similar to that in neighboring counties, he said. Furnari acknowledges that, and also concedes that, as in St. Johns, that system is producing good results. But that’s not inherently a reason to adopt it. “Using this model at their schools maybe enhanced a good thing, whereas we do not have a good special education program in Flagler County, at least according to the data,” Furnari said, stressing that Flagler ranks below the state average in outcomes in almost every measured segment of special education. “Now you’re plugging in a new model and expecting better results. You’re assuming–well, certainly saving money.”
King says the district—and particularly himself, after consultations with colleagues in other districts through the Northeast Florida Education Consortium—evaluated what approach would better serve students with disabilities, and this reorganization was the result. The district is lining up training not just for staff this summer but also for parents to walk through the IP process. “That will alleviate some of the fears and misconceptions that they have,” King said. “I think we’re headed in the right direction to really make some changes for our students.”
The school board is to get a more detailed briefing on the reorganization in May.