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Public fights for special education funding in Beaverton

Federal cuts could counteract attempts to spare programs and jobs

Monday night's Beaverton School Board meeting was bookended by a flurry of comments from teachers, parents and students voicing concerns about the future of special education programs and staff.

The district's 2011-12 budget projections show 33 special education positions hanging by a thread, based on an assumption of $5.8 billion in state K-12 education funding.

Despite the district budget team's intention to spare special education from its chopping block, a loss of $874,000 in federal funding could put those same positions in jeopardy.

The loss in federal funding results from the state of Oregon being denied a waiver for failing to meet federal maintenance of effort guidelines in the 2009-10 school year, said Josh Fritts, Beaverton's special education director.

'It's like a double whammy,' he said of the simultaneous federal and state cuts. 'The only exception is if we were able to receive part of that $2.8 million general fund reduction back.'

Beaverton schools are facing a projected $26 million in cuts after already making $80 million in cuts to school budgets in the past three years.

Lisa Leslie, an instructional aide in Aloha High School's Resource Room, was one of at least 20 people who used the public comment periods at the beginning and end of the meeting to speak out in favor of sparing special education programs and staff from the budget axe.

'In special education, our kids are the most vulnerable. They have the least voice,' Leslie told board members. 'With these (proposed) cuts, I will be the only aide left for 300 students. I would like to personally invite you to come visit me, see my job, my students.'

Debbie Carrillo illustrated her point by playing a special education student's thoughts through a personal speech-generating device.

'The point is, a lot of students in this district don't have a voice,' she said. 'And it's really important that all students in this district have a voice. I encourage you to look at the (reductions) in the special ed budget. I urge you, please, don't disappoint me.'

David Wilkinson, president of the Beaverton Education Association, read from a statement he prepared in response to the budget committee's recommendation to seek further concessions from employees.

He defended several groups targeted at one point or another for staff cuts - including custodians, athletics and activities, and media specialists/teacher-librarians - the latter two areas the committee voted on May 5 to remove from a prioritized list of proposed cuts.

Wilkinson concluded his statement with concerns about preserving special education programs.

'The employees of the Special Education department do amazing work, and their Nordstrom-like customer service is part of what helps keep our government numbers growing and our district funded,' he read. 'They have been blindsided late in the year with more needed reductions, and the budget needs to be amended to respond to these new developments.

'We cannot set up these educators for failure, and must be proactive in preparing for next year, lest we lose these valuable employees and the services they provide.'

While empathizing with those who spoke up to defend the programs, board member Jeff Hicks emphasized any cuts that reduce services and staff are painful to consider.

'None of these are good choices,' he said Wednesday, noting he was an educator for 18 years. 'There is nothing on the cut list that people want to cut … Unfortunately, we're down to it. We've cut around the edges so much, there's not much left that people are not going to feel.'

Responding to a parent who said she was informed Whitford Middle School could close, Superintendent Jerry Colonna explained that because of low enrollment, a special education classroom at Whitford would be merging with another at Highland Park Middle School.

'It's not a budget cut,' Colonna said Monday. 'It's just two classrooms coming together.'

The budget examination process will continue at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday during a Budget Committee work session in the Beaverton School District Administration Center, 16550 S.W. Merlo Road. While the committee will accept written comments, the agenda does not include time for public testimony.

The School Board plans to consider the committee's proposed budget at its June 7 meeting.