Delegate Assembly focuses on special education, debuts comprehensive report for board members
With districts across the state reporting an increase in the number of students with disabilities, the severity of those disabilities and the challenges to meet those students’ needs, CSBA’s May Delegate Assembly meeting centered on all things special education.
After opening proceedings that saw the seating of 60 new delegates, a panel of experts took to the stage at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sacramento on May 18. As part of the discussion of special education strategies and best practices, panelists said districts should focus on prioritizing least-restrictive environment instruction and using in-house staff and programs rather than outsourcing with contracts, when possible.

The challenges and realities of providing adequate special education services also stretch into the financial realm. Board members report that tight budgets, tied to decades of state underinvestment in public schools, have forced officials to cut other programs and encroach on the General Fund to cover rising special education costs.

Due process settlements and litigation can only further stretch those budgets, as attorney’s fees can quickly pile up for districts as they move through the dispute process — with costs being very difficult for districts to recoup. In discussing the need for a state cap on attorney’s fees, CSBA General Counsel Kathryn Meola said a school district in Illinois faced $1.3 million in such fees after a case made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Panelist John A. Bowes, superintendent of Davis Joint Unified School District, said a governing board that routinely finds itself approving closed session settlement agreements for special education services may need to reassess the district’s culture and system, as they may be inherently designed to produce that result.

Echoing that sentiment, Maureen Burness, Co-executive director of the Statewide Special Education Taskforce and consultant with CSBA business partner Total School Solutions, said board members should be focused on the “how is it that we got here” in asking administrators about special education disputes and settlements. “I’m a big believer in prevention,” she said. “And, unfortunately, by that point, you haven’t prevented enough.”

Bowes also stressed the fact that districts need to be partners with families no matter the outcome of a dispute, as the relationship will continue. “Special education settlements are not like civil litigation,” he said. “Not only do we work with the family, maybe from K-12, but sometimes multiple children in a family.”

Considering both the relationship and financial strain that litigation has on a district, panelists and several Delegates spoke to the promise of alternative dispute resolutions, or ways to settle disputes outside of the courtroom. Special Education Local Plan Areas, known as SELPAs, can apply for California Department of Education grants to work on implementing these programs to avoid litigation and fees.

Despite much of the focus being on challenges districts may face in serving their students with disabilities, Bowes emphasized that board members should be able to succinctly define their districts’ special education programs using a positive approach that speaks to opportunity, and not to deficits.

Following the question-and-answer session with the expert panel, Delegates split up into smaller groups for sessions in which they discussed and prioritized special education challenges and successes, strategies, legislation and ways in which CSBA can further serve its membership. While much of the conversation focused on the need for the state and federal government to “fully fund the true cost of special education,” Delegates also reported back to the assembly floor on topics ranging from early interventions to creating districts’ own SELPAs.

“The conversation that we had was enlightening and I appreciate all of the input that we had,” reported Delegate Ann Crosbie, a board member for Fremont Unified School District in the Bay Area.