CONCORD — Max Rosillo expresses his thoughts and emotions by pointing to pictures with his chin, with the help of his special education assistant.
The 9-year-old boy uses a wheelchair and is on life-support machines, including oxygen and a ventilator, but is able to learn along with other special education students at Woodside Elementary in Concord, said his mother, Alisa Rosillo.
She and other parents of students in the Mt. Diablo school district's special education programs are worried that a proposed $8.4 million budget cut could hurt their children's access to education. The cuts, which would be spread over three years, are expected to be approved Tuesday by district trustees.
More than $3.5 million in proposed cuts would come from reducing the hours of special education assistants from 6½ hours to five hours a day, which would have the effect of eliminating about 30 full-time-equivalent positions.
About $840,000 would be saved by reducing special education summer school from six weeks to four.
Alisa Rosillo said she worries that possible layoffs could leave her son with an assistant who has no training in the special communications equipment he uses.
"My big thing is just ensuring that the students are having access to their education," she said. "And right now, my concern is about the students staying with their aides, especially in the extended school year. Summer is a good chunk of time that they need to stay active with their devices in order to move forward with their education."
In March, an outside consultant recommended a different list of cuts that was criticized by many special education parents and administrators. It recommended dismantling a widely praised mental health collaborative program that provides comprehensive services through a partnership with the county at little cost to the district and eliminating the assistant superintendent for special education position, which many parents feel is imperative to address their needs. In response to this criticism, trustees asked district administrators to come up with their own list.
A special education community advisory committee reviewed the revised list last month, with some expressing concerns about reducing assistants in classes with severely handicapped students and those with widely varying abilities. Vice Chairwoman Lorrie Davis' daughter is in a class with nine students and two aides, who give the teacher time to work one-on-one with boys and girls, she said.
"Our concern is that many teachers may not have enough help in the classroom if hours are cut," she said. "Many of our kids arrive at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 3:15 p.m."
At the meeting last month, trustee Gary Eberhart said the board is cutting many programs, services and positions districtwide because of state funding reductions. The district's budget has shrunk from $300 million last year to $279.2 million this year.
Officials estimate next year's budget will drop to $263.7 million, based on the governor's budget released in January. Special education costs the district $71 million a year, including $34 million from its general fund.
"The overriding issue is it's not just special education," Eberhart said. "We don't have a lot of flexibility yet. If we get to the point where (union) negotiations are fruitful, we may have more flexibility."
Trustees want to save $9.8 million a year by negotiating increased class sizes, reduced benefits and pay cuts through furlough days. More cuts may be necessary, if the governor's revised May budget, to be released Friday, is bleaker than originally anticipated.
Special education parents and employees hope they will not be hit harder than projected.
"We've had an influx of students with special needs," especially among severely disabled students who require extra support, said Mildred Browne, Mt. Diablo's assistant superintendent for special education and pupil services, at the April 12 meeting. "This really is a time bomb all over the state, because districts are having to cut in special education and general education."
Morena Grimaldi helps special education student Max Rosillo on Friday at Woodside Elementary School in Concord.