What does ‘encroachment’ mean?

(Note: post updated; see postscript below).

At last night’s Board meeting, there was a lengthy discussion of the cost of tuition for SFUSD students placed in non-public schools; as part of that discussion, there were several references made to the “encroachment” special education makes on the general fund.

This is a sore subject for parents and their children who are enrolled in special education. We resent the idea that our children and their needs somehow take something away from others in the district. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “encroach” means:

  1. to enter by gradual steps or by stealth into the possessions or rights of another; or
  2. to advance beyond the usual or proper limits <the gradually encroaching sea>

If one of your children needs braces and the other doesn’t, do you regard child No. 1’s orthodontic costs as an “encroachment” on the needs of child No. 2? Special education, I think, should be based on the principle, no, fact, that some children have needs that exceed others. In my family, one child has needed resources and time that the other has not. This is not to say that I love or value or care for one child more than the other; it’s just an honest recognition that it has cost our family more time and money to nurture child No. 1 than it has to nurture child No. 2 to the same or greater degree of happiness (up to now, that is — neither child has reached the teen years yet).

Commissioner Wynns used the “E” word several times in our discussion last night, and it takes nothing away from my respect for her and our friendship to say that I didn’t like it. “In budget terms, it’s an encroachment,” she said in response to my pointing  that some people take offense to the term. Perhaps budget people feel “encroachment” is the best way to describe a program that is not adequately funded for the activities it is legally required to perform. But I continue to feel there is a better word; one that doesn’t pit one set of students against another.

(Update: After I posted this, I had a cordial conversation with Commissioner Wynns on this topic. She made some good points about the term “encroachment” being a useful way to illustrate that school districts are being expected to provide services way beyond the limits of the funding provided by the state and federal governments for special education; similarly, the cost of providing a nutritious and reasonably appetizing lunch prepared and served by trained employees is almost impossible with the amount of funding schools get for this purpose. “Encroachment” helps us illustrate to lawmakers that two programs are competing with each other for a limited share of the pie. She also heard what I had to say about the raw reaction I and other parents have to the “E” word and apologized for any unintended offense. I appreciated the apology and reiterated that I see this topic as a discussion and sharing of views and not a personal conflict.)


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