Kari Vaughn’s 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 Sarah’s bus trips.
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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 children’s 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 child’s 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 ‘it’s not in the budget, it’s 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 couldn’t agree on a deficit plan. School districts across Florida and the nation are being forced to absorb the cuts, but Broward’s 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 district’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) department. “Trust is a major issue, and we have to overcome that.”
Special-needs students aren’t 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.
Alarmed, Broward’s ESE Advisory Council — a parent-dominated school district committee — called a special meeting last week to inform the community. The school district alerted parents to the meeting through its automated call system, but no district staffer attended to answer the public’s questions.
District leaders say the hastily called meeting left them unable to send a representative. In that absence, parents listened to more than two hours of pent-up frustration and rage.
“Find the cuts somewhere else, that’s what I say,” said parent Nathalie Adams, who as chairwoman of the ESE council has repeatedly feuded with district administrators.
In defiant comments sprinkled throughout the night, Adams veered between warning parents about the upcoming staffing cuts, and blasting the school district for a pattern of noncooperation and dishonesty.
Parent Marsha Goldsby showed up to the meeting after receiving the robocall, eager to find out what exactly was going on. She soon grew frustrated that the meeting sounded “like a lot of griping,” and she walked out before it concluded.
NOT SO SIMPLE
Still, all the talk of funding shortfalls left Goldsby “really worried” that her 6-year-old son Evan might lose his school paraprofessional — a service Goldsby had fought hard to obtain.
Evan, his mother said, is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but the situation is complicated because Evan also has leukemia. Because of the leukemia, Evan can’t take his ADHD medicines, which can make managing his classroom behavior more difficult.
When Evan started kindergarten a year ago, Goldsby thought she had a secret weapon: The boy had previously attended preschool at a Nova Southeastern University-affiliated facility, where undergraduate students and a psychologist had studied Evan’s behavior. The Nova team even produced a written report on Evan that was essentially a how-to manual for teaching him.
When Evan started kindergarten at Endeavour Primary Learning Center in Lauderhill, Goldsby said she brought in the report on the first day of school.
“I’m like, ‘This is what you have to do to deal with him,” Goldsby said. “ ‘If you do this, you will get the best results out of him.’ ”
But no one at the school read the report, Goldsby said. Evan’s behavior suffered.
Francis, the ESE director, said that even with the cutbacks, the district is making it a point to train schools and principals on how to better serve special-needs families. Online training sessions are one key initiative, she said, and Goldsby’s story, while unacceptable, is also a teachable moment.
“I’m trying to develop a culture in the district that we are there to help the schools learn and understand what it means to take care of our children,” Francis said.