About three and a half months after the resignation of the embattled special education director, the Santa Barbara school board Tuesday night took a significant step toward restructuring the troubled department, creating three new leadership positions to be filled this spring.

Meanwhile, a new survey taken by special-education teachers indicates morale is in the basement, according to the Sacramento-based consulting group Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team. FCMAT was hired by the district to create a comprehensive report on the special-education department, which has seen seven leaders in eight years.

About 80 percent of the teachers in the department say morale is very low, JoAnn Murphy, an independent contractor working for FCMAT, told the board Tuesday. Seventy-two percent say they do not feel valued by the district; 70 percent say they don’t feel valued by the community, she said.

“There is a community perception of distrust with the district’s special-education administration,” she said.

The trouble burst into view in mid-October when parents of children with special needs began attending board meetings to complain about a shortage of trained instructional aides, a failure to follow through on legally mandated education plans created for their children by educators and, above all, a lack of responsiveness from the district about their concerns.

The conflict came to a head Nov. 21, with the resignation of special-ed director Anissa McNeil.

Tuesday’s action means the district will create a position for an executive director for the department, earning between $110,000 and $123,000. Beneath that position will be two directors, one for each of the elementary and secondary districts. The board voted 5-0 for the creation of the executive director’s post, but the vote was 4-1 for the subordinate positions, with trustee Bob Noel dissenting.

As a result of Tuesday’s action, the district will add about $80,000 to its annual cost for special education.

The move comes at a time when the district is expected to lay off dozens of teachers as a result of the state budget crisis.

Parents of special education students who attended Tuesday’s meeting were generally unhappy with the overall direction in which the district seems headed.

Parent Cory Bream said the preliminary FCMAT study seems to indicate that changes need to be made at the top.

“You ultimately have the same people in charge of special education,” she said, referring to how district Superintendent Brian Sarvis and Associate Superintendent Robin Sawaske are still accountable for the department. “If you have the same ideas in charge, nothing changes.”

Bream did add, however, that the move to create the three new positions was a “positive step.”

In the study — which is yet to be completed — FCMAT also interviewed five of the seven former special-education leaders who have left the district in the past eight years, Murphy said.

Among their stated reasons for leaving were:

» A personal life choice

» Santa Barbara’s high cost of living

» The department was understaffed

» The position did not carry the authority to make final decisions

» A lot of time was spent on due process and complaint resolution

Write to rkuznia@noozhawk.com

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.