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Report Finds Santa Barbara District’s Special-Ed Programs Fail to Make the Grade

Citing high turnover and a lack of organization, the FCMAT review recommends a complete overhaul

It’s no secret that the Santa Barbara School District’s special-education programs have problems.

Board of Education meetings have been frequented by concerned parents for months, and the staff turnover rate is so high that only one person has held the top position for more than a year in the past seven years. (Click here for a time line.)

The mounting problems prompted the district to pay an outside consulting company about $56,000 to determine what it’s doing wrong.

A lot, it turns out.

The report, overseen by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, conducted a review of the program that ultimately recommended an overhaul of the entire system.

In particular, the report criticized the special-education department’s lack of organization — there is no defined staffing formula, enforced administrative hierarchy or written mission for programs.

“There is confusion and disorganization between site roles and district roles, which has a great impact on service delivery, parent confidence and staff morale,” according to the report’s executive summary.

Confidential surveys taken during FCMAT’s review in March of special-ed employees and parents showed low employee morale, and many identified with negative factors such as a lack of clear communication of expectations and a lack of resources.

Poor communication among all involved parties wasn’t helped by the extremely high turnover of department administrators — seven directors in eight years.

“This instability in leadership is the root cause of the systematic problems that have led to inconsistency, disorganization, confusion over policies and procedures, and a lack of direction to school sites,” the report said.

The FCMAT report and district administrators have said the reasons for turnover aren’t quite understood, but that the department’s constant coming and going of personnel has contributed to the many problems it’s now facing.

Although there are now recommendations to make changes to nearly every area of the special-ed department, what the district plans to do with the information is less obvious.

Overall plans of action have been absent, and further discussions of the report have been requested by parents and board members. The issue is expected to be on the Aug. 11 agenda.

Parents at the July 14 board meeting were upset that the issue hadn’t been discussed further, and one attendee pointed out that the delayed Aug. 11 discussion would be just two weeks before the start of the school year — most likely too late to make significant changes.

Following the FCMAT report, the Board of Education agreed to a new staffing formula of one executive director, two directors and program specialists. All of those positions remain open.

Since the hiring of FCMAT and the November 2008 resignation of director Anissa McNeil, there have been interim directors — two hires who suddenly resigned or withdrew in July before starting work — and the selection of interim administrator Caryl Miller, who will serve as executive director until the district can fill the role.

Personnel director Kristine Robertson said the district is interviewing seven or eight candidates for the executive director position. The district recently changed some parameters of the position, including an increase in salary to a range of $120,000 to $133,000.

“We get a different caliber of applicant with lots of background in special education,” Robertson said of the salary increase. “It could be a stepping stone for some or a lateral move for others.”

Robertson said Miller is likely to stay on to help with the transition, regardless of when a person is hired. “We’ll need to have that stability while reorganizing,” she said.

The district is holding off looking for director candidates (one each for the elementary and secondary districts) until an executive director is chosen, since they’ll work closely together. Program specialists must be approved by the board, but two positions are close to being filled, Robertson said.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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