More on the Sept 8 Board meeting

It’s taken me a while to filter out the key information from last night’s meeting. Last night, I reported our decision on the most-discussed item — the proposal to give the newly-merged San Francisco Education Fund (now including the San Francisco School Volunteers) $99,100 to cover various activities, the most expensive and prominent of which is the screening and fingerprinting of volunteers (which costs $66 per volunteer or an expected $66,000 this year).

There was also a lot of discussion about issues that were originally raised at last month’s Budget committee meeting — about the amount of flexibility we now have with various funding streams from the state and what we are doing to maximize that flexibility; as well as the priorities we are now planning not to fund since we have this scarcity-induced flexibilty.

Commissioner Fewer severed six or seven items from the consent calendar to discuss that very issue — she wanted to know: were the activities described in the items truly mission critical or should we begin to re-evaluate our spending with the idea that any flexible sources of funding should be swept into the general fund in order to preserve small class sizes, teachers’ aides and other essentials? In the end, the Board voted to fund all of them — Commissioner Fewer joining with the majority on most — but the point was made, and it was a good one: we can’t continue doing business as usual.

There were several contracts related to special education that I specifically questioned – a request for $15,000 to train teachers and paraprofessionals in the TEACCH methodology used primarily with students with autism; a significant increase in our budget for non-public school tuitions for 2008-09 and two increases in payments to outside law firms who contract with the district to represent us in special education cases. I’ll take them one at a time:

  • TEACCH – I pulled this to protest our continued reliance on TEACCH as our primary methodology to educate students with autism. TEACCH is almost 40 years old, and (in my personal opinion) is based more in classroom control and compliance than it is in teaching students skills that will generalize to the natural world.  Some experts believe that students educated in TEACCH-based classrooms are less likely to demonstrate their knowledge or skills in “real world” environments that are less tightly-supervised than a TEACCH classroom; I suppose the methodology has limited usefulness with students who are severely impaired but I think it is high time that we turn our attention (and resources) towards newer approaches that are more naturalistic and that have a greater chance of helping students navigate and succeed in the real world. Cost: $15,000; Vote: 4-2 in favor (Norton and Wynns voting no; Yee absent).
  • Revision to cost of non-public school tuitions (retroactive to 2008-09 school year): I was unhappy to see that we have again increased the amount of money we paid non-public schools to reimburse them for educating SFUSD students (many of whom have disabilities). Earlier this year, the district increased the 2009-10 budget allocation for NPS tuition to $14 million from $12 million; last night’s request was for an additional $2 million to bring the total cost of educating SFUSD students in NPS schools to $16 million for last year. The news gets worse: the number of students being educated under these arrangements has soared this past year to 250; just a few years ago it was around 150. Why? There are a number of reasons but the main one is that hearing officers seem to be finding that out-of-district placements are more appropriate for our students with emotional disturbances and severe autism. In other words, we need to work harder to create appropriate placements for students with these challenges.  In the end, I voted for the allocation but I believe (after extensive discussion and a sharp commentary by Commissioner Wynns about these expenditures) the message was received: we need to do a much better job of providing appropriate classroom environments for students in special education. The Superintendent also announced to the Board and the public that he has many of the same questions that we do, and plans a third-party audit (something I have been urging for at least two years!) of our programs. Though this will cost money, I am strongly supportive because I think we continue to have serious dysfunction in the way we are organizing our special education programs (Cost: $2 million; Vote – 7-0 in favor).
  • Legal costs in special education cases:  Though the costs for outside counsel in special education cases remains eye-popping (over $300,000 for 2008-09), apparently our legal costs are below where they were the year before. The legal counsel’s office this year has embarked on a new strategy of distributing cases to more than one firm (in the past one firm, and one attorney in particular, handled most of our cases) — this strategy appears to be working to reduce our legal fees.
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