Over the past month, many parents of children with special needs have worked with New Lenox School District 122 to determine individualized education plans. And even though the cuts of six special education teachers and six of their aides worry some parents, the district maintains it has a high-quality level of support and instruction for the students.
Determining the students' needs affects the amount of staffing required to provide the necessary services. The district must notify staff if their position is being eliminated, often before administrators and parents meet to set goals for their students.
That guessing game concerned some parents who approached Patch, but Superintendent Mike Sass said the cuts made earlier this year were based on need and won’t hurt the students.
“We’re only providing what we need," he said. "Those are cuts solely based upon the needs of the kids. Any student that’s going to need specialized support will get it."
Determining an IEP
Every year, a team made up of administrators, specialists, parents and others meets to determine an individualized education plan (called an IEP) for students with special needs. It consists of the objectives, goals and number of minutes per week that a student will need from each staff member.
By law, however the district must notify teachers in March which positions are being eliminated.
“So in the winter, we need to do the predicting,” Sass said. “We could all have the IEPs done by November, but let’s give the kids a chance to have some of the year (to show their progress).”
Thus, if teachers aren’t being utilized in a current year or students show progress, the district may determine that a position isn’t needed the next year. But some parents say they feel that even with the promise that students who need extra help will get it, the district could say that fewer students need it, allowing for more cuts.
“I think they’ll make it harder for students that need those services to get them,” said one parent with special needs children.
The parents who spoke with Patch asked that their names not be published, saying they worried about possible repercussions for their children.
This mother and other parents said the plan for their student often feels predetermined and that they have little input in the "uncomfortable" meeting. The district, however, says nothing is predetermined (by law, it can’t be), but suggestions and options are discussed beforehand to help figure out the necessary staffing levels.
Parents who don’t think they’re given enough input to the child’s plan do have avenues to file complaints, though Special Education District 843 Director Sally Bintz says she hasn’t seen many issues in her seven years working with District 122. There’s a Parent Advisory Council that can help, and complaints may also be filed with the state Board of Education. If it came to it, due process is an option but, according to Bintz, that hasn’t occurred since she arrived.
“We’re projecting as best we can what our needs might be,” Bintz said. “The parent may not agree with that decision, but we’ll work with them. There’s just so many nuances to the entire day you try to get at. There’s no surprises. It would be so time-consuming to start from scratch (to determine the goals).”
Facing a $3.2 million budget deficit to start the year, the district looked to trim where it could to balance the budget. Administrators reviewed the caseload associated with each special education student's IEP and determined that equal services could be offered more efficiently by cutting the six special education teachers and six aides, saving about $540,000. Sass said students requiring aides will still get them, and that they wouldn't lose any time with special education teachers.
The parents said they worry the teachers left after the cuts will be stretched too thin, and they say they’ve already seen some of that occur.
“(I) feel that even with the cuts from last year to this year, that the level of service was significantly reduced so I can't imagine how it will be next year,” parent Nicole Yaniz said via comment on a previous Patch article.
After notifying teachers in March regarding which positions would be eliminated, there’s always a chance to bring back staff if necessary. That’s something the school board asked Sass to do when deciding to make the cuts.
“In the event we all of a sudden get more special education students coming in, we most definitely start hiring teachers back,” board member Sue Gillooley said. “There’s always an exception to the rule. But we have so much staff that there’s always more than sufficient amount.”
Gillooley, who has a special education student who has gone through District 122, was confident enough in the staffing levels and IEP process to vote for the cuts, and the other six board members agreed. While other personnel cuts, such as junior high counselors or librarians, needed further debate by the board, members’ only stipulation in cutting special education positions was that teachers would be hired back if needed.
“Who would want me to maintain those teachers if the students didn’t need them?” Sass said, explaining that taxpayers would be upset with the excess.
A ‘Strong Record to Stand On’
Despite the concerns from some parents—few of which he said have even been expressed to administrators—Sass is confident and proud of the job District 122 is doing in regard to special education services.
Sass was a special education teacher in Arlington Heights, a special education administrator in Oak Park and a principal of a special education school in West Aurora, so he's made it a focus to provide better services.
"He’s set the model and the other five schools (that feed into the Special Education District 843) are doing the same thing," Gillooley said.
As far as staffing levels are concerned, Sass said District 122 is likely well above other districts, pointing to examples such as staffing every building with a nurse while other district share nurses between schools. There are state requirements for teacher caseloads and how many students they may handle, and Sass said the district is “not close to approaching” the legal limit, meaning teachers can still spend the necessary amount of time with each student.
He also points to the staff provided at each school: a full-time nurse, a full-time social worker and a half-time psychologist. There are also three special education teachers in each intermediate school and two in each primary school, and 14 speech therapists total for the 12 schools.
“That’s a pretty darn good staffing level," he said. "We have a nice bubble of support staff for children in my district. I would find it hard to believe a parent isn’t happy with the services we provide."
Other special education leaders might agree that the district's staffing levels, even after cuts, shouldn't concern parents. If they do have concerns, though, officials encourage parents to contact the district and voice them.
"The district has a very strong record to stand on when it comes to delivery of services," Bintz said.