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Oregon City School District auditing highest special education rate in metro area

Oregon City School District Superintendent Larry Didway announced last week that district officials are investigating how its students are placed in special education; at 15.6 percent, OCSD has the highest rate of students in the metro area defined as special-ed.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Angela Jarvis-Holland, executive director of All Born (In), makes a presentation in December with her son Daniel on the need for integration of students with disabilities in mainstream education. Didway’s announcement came on the same day that a federal grand jury decided on additional charges for James Ian McGlothlin, who allegedly made child pornography while he was an OCSD special-ed instructional assistant. The school district suspended McGlothlin after learning about the police investigation on Feb. 16.

Didway didn’t mention the case again during the March 16 State of the Schools event hosted by the Oregon City Chamber of Commerce, but he assured the approximately 100 business leaders in the audience that special-ed issues will continue to receive increased scrutiny by both district officials and the general public.

“When you’re the county seat you have a lot of services located in your area, and so families choose to move there,” Didway said. “We have a lot of students who come to Oregon City for special education.”

Out of OCSD’s more than 8,000 students, 1,255 were defined as special-ed during the 2014-15 school year, and there was a large jump in students who were diagnosed with “communication disorders” from the 2013-14 school year. Cynthia Panko, OCSD’s director of special services since July 2014, is leading the district’s investigation.

“You always have to look at your identification methods to make sure that kids are getting the right services,” Panko said. “Communication disorder can mask itself with autism or intellectual disabilities.”

Communication disorder was blamed for more than 20 percent of OCSD’s special-ed kids, and the North Clackamas School District has an even higher rate of communication-disorder diagnosis at 25 percent. After OCSD, NCSD has the second-highest rate of special-ed identification in the metro area.

Panko suspects that some of OCSD’s English language learners are being misdiagnosed with communication issues.

“We’re going back and exploring our referral process and making sure that it’s the correct method,” she said.

Panko wants to get every kid correctly placed, in part because there are several special-ed students in OCSD that cost the district more than $80,000 annually.

Panko’s priority is to be a responsible financial steward, making sure that students’ needs are met while protecting the general fund as much as possible. She’s been working with Clackamas Education Service District Special Education Director Linda Eastlund, who was also recently appointed, and now OCSD doesn’t have any more students that are costing more than $100,000 annually.

“The more students with special needs are exposed to rigorous academics, rather than segregated from the general population, the more likely it is they’ll be contributing members of society,” Panko said.

Funding discrepancy

Urbanized districts closer to specialized medical services for kids with disabilities have a higher-than-average percentage of special-education students. Like most of the state’s districts, OCSD, NCSD and Gladstone schools don’t get extra funding for all of those students.

Jenni Knaus, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education, explains that the formula for how the state’s districts get special-education money has a cap on it.

The billions of dollars in the State School Fund is distributed by the “weight” of a student’s needs. A typical student is 1.0 weight. A special-education student is double that — but only up to 11 percent of the student body.

For example, if a district has 1,000 students, the first 110 special-education students would earn the district additional funding, but the 111th student and all the ones after that get no additional funding, Knaus says.

According to data from the Oregon Department of Education, only 23 districts out of the 176 with special-education students have fewer than 11 percent.

None of this money is earmarked specifically for special education, though.

“The State School Fund statutes do not require districts to spend the money in a specific manner,” Knaus says. “The State School Fund is a distribution formula and not a spending formula.”

There are other resources that are earmarked for special education, but they are a smaller slice of the pie.

Pearson says the federal government provides just $9.5 million of her $74 million budget. That’s just shy of 13 percent.

When the federal law requiring special-education services in public schools was passed in 1975, Congress promised to fund 40 percent of the services. It never has.

Meeting challenges

Didway, however, is committed to providing quality public education to every student and has been lobbying for reimbursement of high-cost students.

Didway said that the district needs to provide extra support and services to students who need “a little extra help to reach their full potential.”

Kelly Welsh, director of special services in the neighboring school district of Gladstone, agrees with that mission. Despite open-enrollment laws allowing for more transfers, Gladstone hasn’t seen any large influx in kids who require special education; Gladstone’s special-ed rate fell to 14 percent this year, putting it at sixth in the metro area.

“Our responsibility is to provide free appropriate education for each of the kids, and that’s what the law says,” Welsh said. “Students are referred to special education after multiple attempted interventions in regular classrooms. We try to find the best match for the need and I certainly talk to my colleagues in other districts to try to find that so we work together.”

Despite challenges, OCSD is keeping pace with other districts in Oregon, Didway said. He pointed out that OCSD has been nationally recognized for high productivity, due in part to its low proportion of budget set aside for administration. Although OCSD also enjoys 21 percent above-average science test scores, Didway acknowledged that the district needs to do better in other areas.

It’s daunting, Didway said, for the district to be taking on long-range plans for its facilities and curriculum

“We are preparing our kids for a future that we can’t even envision,” he said.

Didway said that former Gov. John Kitzhaber had been working on sweeping educational reforms before his historic resignation.

“A new vision has not really been articulated by our new governor, Kate Brown,” Didway said.

Didway added that the stakes are high because of the potentially “catastrophic” effect of courts striking down proposed reforms in public-employee retirement benefits.

School officials say there’s a link between a lack of funding and increased numbers in special ed. OCSD employs six school psychologists but it doesn’t have full-time elementary school counselors restored in funding, which is a goal of the district to bring back.

“Behavioral health is very important, but we don’t often talk about it,” Didway said.

In response to last month’s arrest, Didway has pointed out that OCSD fingerprints, checks the background of all staff, and mandates a safety training designed to help all employees prevent and detect any behavior that might put students at risk.

Gladstone’s Welsh said for kids with special needs who can’t communicate for themselves, that training has to “protect the most vulnerable” by noticing subtle changes.

“Kids communicate even if they don’t have words,” Welsh said. “Even if they do talk, they might not be telling you things. As mandatory reporters, we’re watching for signs all the time.”

Goal to reduce segregation

In the 60 years since Brown vs. Board of Education ended enforced racial segregation in public schools, a different kind of educational segregation persists. It is based on children’s medical, social, emotional and intellectual differences.

A federal law governs special education accommodations — the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The rules are the same for everyone, but the game is played differently in every state, every district, every school and every classroom.

Part of that is by design. The IDEA promises “free and appropriate public education” in the “least-restrictive environment” for students based on individual need. Parents, teachers, aides, therapists and students participate in annual Individualized Education Program meetings.

The IEP process also determines where a student is placed. A special-education student does not have the automatic right to attend his or her neighborhood school.

A child can qualify for special education based on a wide range of difficulties — 13 different categories, from deafness to physical impairment, autism to specific learning disabilities.

FACT Oregon is a nonprofit based inside Clackamas Education Service District offices. One of its primary goals is to help families through the IEP process that determines eligibility of special-education services.

“The IEP determines what the services are, not the present availability of personnel,” says Executive Director Roberta Dunn.

The onus, however, is on the parents. The IEP process is set up so that if a parent has an issue with the services the school is providing, they need to state it at the beginning of the meeting. If there is continued disagreement with what the school is providing, the responsibility again is on the parent to find a lawyer and complain.

Parents who are struggling with their own disability, a language barrier, a lack of resources, a lack of education, substance abuse — or the simple and inherent reality of their child’s extra needs — can find navigating the system nearly impossible.

“It’s something that FACT works very hard to combat,” Dunn says, adding: “It is something that we find that happens quite frequently.”

Shasta Kearns Moore contributed to this report.