OAKLAND -- The Oakland school district's special-education programs will take a $4.3 million hit next school year under a plan to fix a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall discovered just a month ago.
The plan to slash the department's budget by more than 6 percent just weeks before the budget deadline was quietly announced on the last week of school in an internal memo to a group of special-education employees. The memo outlines how costs would be cut: bigger class sizes, caseloads pushed to the legal maximum and fewer teachers, aides and other employees, mostly reduced through employees gradually leaving and not being replaced.
Special education will take the brunt of the budget-balancing blow because, according to the district administration, that department was the primary source of the shortfall. An influx of federal stimulus funds masked that the district was not properly monitoring the revenues and expenditures of its special-education programs, Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint said.
Because the problem was detected so late in the budget cycle, Flint said, it was either cut the special-education budget or redo the district's entire spending plan for 2012-13, which is due by the end of June.
"This is a very difficult situation that we brought on ourselves," Flint said. "We are trying to do our best to mitigate it."
Still, some teachers and families say it will spell disaster for children and teachers throughout the district and lead to more lawsuits for failing to comply with federal law.
"I honestly feel that this district is completely, completely turning its back on special ed," said Cintya Molina, the parent of a special-needs child and chairwoman of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. "The timing of the proposed cuts guarantees that a breakdown will occur when the school year begins."
Compounding the concerns of Molina and other advocates was a decision by Maria Santos, the district's deputy superintendent of instruction, leadership and equity-in-action, to eliminate the positions of 12 veteran "program specialists," problem-solving experts who work with teachers, families and principals. Nine of those positions would be reinstated in August, but current employees will need to reapply for them. The jobs will come with new descriptions, which have not been posted.
"You are letting go of the most knowledgeable people in OUSD all at once -- that's intense," Molina said.
Program specialists typically work 11 months a year and are widely considered to be a stabilizing force in a complex and often chaotic system with a great deal of administrative and teacher turnover. They resolve the kinds of contentious situations that are likely to be brought on by the latest cutbacks when the school year starts.
Flint acknowledged that teachers, families and the teachers union were blindsided by the news. While the employees received legal notices in March, warning they might be reassigned to another position within the district, he said, communication about this important decision was lacking -- both internally and with the public.
"In a real-world context, I think we failed here," he said.
Given the sharp cutbacks and the retirement of the department's director, Sharon Casanares, some question why the district would also proceed with a quickly conceived reorganization.
"The timing is strange," said Angela Badami, a special-education teacher at Westlake Middle School. While she agreed that some restructuring of the department was needed, she said, "If you have everybody coming together in mid-August, it's going to be a mad scramble."
The newly created program specialist positions would be more specialized than they are currently -- an improvement that Santos, who oversees academic programs, felt needed to be put into place as soon as possible, Flint said.
"She didn't want to wait another school year to implement these changes," he said.
Dennis Nelson, a program specialist, said he wasn't opposed to such a change, in principle. But, he said, the plan strikes him as "vague and undefined," and he noted that many of the current specialists -- himself included -- might have taken other jobs within the district by the time the positions are posted this summer.
"Why would one want to eliminate all of these skilled positions so close to the beginning of the school year?" he asked.
Kristin Psiaki, a teacher who works with special-education students at two East Oakland schools, worries that resource specialists like her will find themselves dividing their time between two or three schools as their caseloads swell. Special-education and general-education programs alike will suffer from the diminished support she and other teachers will offer, she said.
Even as she packed up her classroom for the summer, she was already thinking about Aug. 27, the first day of school.
"I can't imagine what next year's going to be like," she said.