Kari Vaughns daughter, Sarah, who has Down syndrome, has attended Broward County Schools for close to 10 years. And along the way, Mom amassed quite a few battle scars.
There were the four years that Vaughn spent fighting for her daughter to get some kind of technology assistance Sarah, now 17, struggles to communicate on her own. Eventually, Vaughn prevailed, and Sarah today uses a chat program on her Android tablet.
Two years ago, Vaughn complained to the school district that her daughter was forced to ride the school bus for nearly two hours every morning and afternoon. Administrators responded that budgets were tight: Feel free to drive your daughter yourself, Vaughn says she was told.
Eventually, she won that battle, too, as the district found a way to shorten Sarahs bus trips.
Now, with Broward eliminating more than a dozen special-needs staff positions because of federal funding cuts, parents like Vaughn are worried about how the changes will affect their childrens day-to-day lives. Broward enrolls about 32,000 students with special needs.
School district leaders insist the budget cuts are specifically targeted to avoid hurting the classroom, with a focus on reducing administrative positions instead of school-based personnel.
Superintendent Robert Runcie described the situation as difficult but nowhere near a crisis. After a heated public meeting last week added to the tensions, the superintendent called it irresponsible to stoke parents fears.
When it comes to special-needs students, the particular care they receive whether through speech therapy or special technology tools to foster learning is outlined in the childs Individualized Education Program, or IEP. Runcie noted that the program is a legally binding document, and therefore could not be ignored even if the district wanted to.
Still, many parents are concerned after a year of repeated clashes with the school system.
Earlier this year, the district proposed closing two learning centers dedicated to students who are either medically fragile or who suffer from behavioral disorders. After a public outcry, the district scaled back its plan so that only one school was closed.
Before that, a group of upset parents had trekked to Broward School Board meetings to complain that district staff was so combative that parents sometimes had to go to court over what they saw as reasonable requests for services.
They always say that its not in the budget, its not in the budget, Vaughn said.
BACKLOG OF MISTRUST
The latest cuts are a consequence of the sequester across-the-board spending reductions implemented by Congress after lawmakers couldnt agree on a deficit plan. School districts across Florida and the nation are being forced to absorb the cuts, but Browards fractured relationship with its special-needs parents makes the task that much harder.
Any time that that collaboration does not exist, it does complicate things, said Kathrine Francis, executive director of the school districts Exceptional Student Education (ESE) department. Trust is a major issue, and we have to overcome that.
Special-needs students arent the only ones in Broward affected by the sequester, but it is special-needs staff that appear to be facing the deepest job cuts. The district lost nearly $2.4 million from a key federal grant for disabled students, and responded by eliminating five behavior technician jobs, 10 program specialist jobs, and an assistive technology position. The amount of money spent on supplies and staff training was also chopped down from nearly $400,000 to $42,486.