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It’s frustrating for Carol Chapman to watch her son regress in his Richland classroom.
The 11-year-old boy was doing well when they first moved from Olympia to Richland, but during the past year he is acting out more and losing skills that he had gained — and she said it’s not the teachers’ fault.
Chapman says she has seen fewer paraeducators in the classroom and less help to allow her son to participate in classes like music or physical education. The district trimmed 70 paraeducator positions last year.
She wasn’t alone in her frustration.
Dozens of parents left sticky notes during a district informational meeting at Sacajawea Elementary School Thursday with messages wondering what was going to happen to their children and why special education programs might be eliminated and paraeducator positions cut.
Paraeducators help teachers in classrooms, often providing extra attention for students that need it. They often help with special education programs.
The Sacajawea meeting Thursday was one of a series of four meetings the district held during the week. The sessions drew about 530 parents concerned about budget cuts and the prospect of losing paraeducators. The meetings allowed the district to collect information about how parents and others believe special education programs can be improved.
More than one out of every 10 students in the Richland district is enrolled in the special education program — a little below the state average — but that’s still about 1,500 students.
At the Sacajawea meeting, parents were broken into small groups where they talked to principals about their concerns and ideas while the deputy superintendent, school board members and assistant superintendents walked through listening to concerns.
Chapman’s frustration was obvious as she talked with Orchard Elementary School Principal Alysia Arsanto. She wanted to know why the district leaders who had the answers weren’t answering their questions, but instead they were making the lower-level administrators handle it.
Parents looking for answers
Most of the parents attended the meetings after hearing rumors of large cuts to paraeducator positions that could strike at the heart of the special education program.
Deputy Superintendent Nicole MacTavish authored a letter to parents about draft budget documents that had leaked onto Facebook. Those documents don’t reflect the truth, she said.
“The things that you are worried about simply are not happening,” she told a crowd at White Bluffs Elementary School. “I know that we’re not making drastic cuts. We’re not cutting programs. There is no plan to eliminate positions for certified staff.”
She stopped short of promising that there wouldn’t be cuts to the nearly 400 paraeducators the district employs. While paraeducators do help teachers with special education students, they also help in a variety of classrooms and around the schools.
The district plans to unveil its draft budget at Tuesday’s 6:30 p.m. school board meeting, which has been moved to the gym at Marcus Whitman Elementary School in anticipation of large crowds. There have been no specific details about what might be cut from the budget, but district leaders have said cuts need to be made.
Reasons for budget shortfalls
The district is dealing with a series of problems that are hitting its schools harder than neighboring districts.
One issue is that after years of steady enrollment growth, district officials expect it to level off, Superintendent Rick Schulte said. Enrollment serves as the backbone for how much money districts get from the state. For instance, losing 100 students could mean a drop of up to $1.3 million in a district the size of Richland.
Richland is also being affected by a change in how the state pays for teachers. When the state switched to paying a flat rate, it hit Richland, which has more experienced teachers, harder. than a lot of other school districts with less-experienced teachers.
Combine those issues with a change in how much property tax school districts can raise locally and the budget shortfalls quickly escalate.
While the change in the local property tax amount was aimed at helping to equalize funding throughout the state, it has created a financial mess for many districts and triggered warnings about drastic budget cuts all across Washington. The decline in local levy money is expected to hit Richland, with its higher property values, harder than Kennewick or Pasco.
All of these funding issues have forced Richland to take a harder look at where it spends money, and the district is still working through a wide range of scenarios to make ends meet.
“We are still in the midst of these discussions for every area of our budget, and will be until the Legislature finishes their work,” MacTavish said in her letter. “When they do, the budget can be fully developed and finalized. This is a living, breathing process, and it takes the better part of one school year to prepare for the next school year.”
She said it was one of the worst-case scenarios that got publicized on social media, and that scenario is not what the district is currently planning to implement.
Future of special education
The budget discussions started at the same time the district began assessing its special education program. MacTavish told parents at White Bluffs that the plan isn’t likely to be finished for more than a year.
The district does have a set of goals it would like to see for all of the special education students, starting with wanting them all to graduate, she said.
“For students receiving special education services, this means not only earning high school diplomas, but also achieving maximum independence,” MacTavish said.
The district also wants to keep special education students in their neighborhood schools, where they have easier access to the people who support them, and make sure they have access to education.
“Each child is unique, each context is different and each decision is a team decision,” she said. “That is why special education services are developed by a team, a team in which parents are key players.”
The school district has promised to make space on its website so people can be informed as the plan progresses.