Richland schools face budget shortfall. What does that mean for special education?

Richland school officials will discuss possible budget cuts and its special education program during a series of community forums this week.

Deputy Superintendent Nicole MacTavish plans four sessions across the district in response to increasing confusion about how changes to the special education program are tied to potential paraeducator cuts.

“We will continue to provide high-quality special education services to all students who need them,” MacTavish said. “What’s more, we are dedicated to improving our special education services to ensure each student receiving those services is able to grow and thrive in their neighborhood schools.”

The district has been going through a process of adjusting its special education program after a 2018 report from Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative.

The report noted several changes the district could put in place to improve its special education program.

Teachers and administrators are still deciding what those changes will be, and they still need input from parents and teachers before any decisions are made, explained Ty Beaver, the district’s spokesman.

Trimming paraeducator positions

The consultants encouraged the district to ease back on its reliance of paraeducators, saying they should work as an extension of the teacher rather than replacing teachers.

In particular, the report suggested the Richland Education Association contract encouraged using paraeducators.

Union officials disagree, saying they support having special education students included with other students, but they need more paraeducators to accomplish that.

What isn’t clear is if the report or budget problems prompted district officials to start talking with the union earlier this month about potential cutbacks in staffing.

Association President Ken Hays was told the district planned to trim 110 of the nearly 400 paraeducator positions next year.

Pending budget shortfall

District officials previously warned that it was looking at cuts because of a combination of stagnant enrollment, changes in how much property taxes they can collect and how much the state pays for teachers.

District officials have said there likely would be cuts, but no decisions have been made.

“We are looking at numerous scenarios to minimize any impact to the classroom and maintain our strong student supports and extracurricular programs,” MacTavish said. “Any changes for an individual students will be based on their IEP (individual education plan) with the agreement and consent of their parent or guardian.”

District officials will be at White Bluffs Elementary and Enterprise Middle School on April 10 and Sacajawea Elementary and Richland High School on April 11.

The meetings start at 6 p.m.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.