Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 3:55 am | Fair 35º


Santa Barbara District’s Special-Ed Director Resigns Amid Criticism

Anissa McNeil's abrupt announcement comes just three days after a contentious school board meeting.

The Santa Barbara School District’s special-education director resigned late last week amid mounting criticism from dissatisfied parents, becoming the seventh leader to leave the troubled department in about as many years. She had been at the district for less than six months.

Anissa McNeil’s abrupt announcement came Friday, just three days after a contentious school board meeting in which she attempted to tout the department’s success during a 45-minute presentation. The report before the board included testaments of praise for her and the department from a special-education teacher, an elementary school principal and an attorney who represents the district.

It did little to quell the frustration of a growing group of parents, who — for the third meeting in a month — showed up in force at the meeting Nov. 18. The group has repeatedly complained about a shortage of trained instructional aides for their children with special needs, 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.

“Parents of kids in special education are sometimes seen as crazies or loose cannons because we often stand alone,” said Jennifer Griffin, co-chairwoman of a local group called Parents of Special Education, which in October posted bulletins in local media outlets advising frustrated special-education parents to contact her. “Most of us are too tired to fight. But tonight we’re standing here united asking to be heard.”

On Monday, McNeil, who came to the district in July from the Mountain View School District in El Monte, declined to comment. She took over for Jo Anne Pulley, who resigned midyear last year, citing a desire to go back to school. Pulley had held the position for two-and-a-half years.

McNeil’s last official day will be Nov. 30.

Her supervisor, Associate Superintendent of Education Robin Sawaske, said she couldn’t comment on the circumstances surrounding McNeil’s resignation, citing personnel confidentiality laws.

Speaking to the high turnover in Santa Barbara, Sawaske said, “It’s a tough position.”

“The staff is huge,” she said. “It’s a big job.”

McNeil made about $118,000 a year at the position, for which the salary schedule ranges from $108,000 to a little more than $120,000.

At each of the three meetings, the parents have come from different schools. On Oct. 14, most came from Washington Elementary; on Oct. 28, most came from the K-8 Open Alternative School; on Nov. 18, they came from Peabody Elementary, Monroe Elementary and Goleta Valley Junior High.

Cherise Dunham, a parent from Goleta Valley Junior High, said her son suffers from a rare disorder, called Prader-Willi Syndrome, in which he can’t stop eating because his brain doesn’t register satiation.

“If Hunter was left unmonitored, he could literally eat himself to death — I’m not exaggerating,” she said.

Dunham said there was an occasion last year in which her son was left unmonitored; for a half-hour, nobody at the school knew where he was. She added that she requested a meeting with educators for his legally required education plan in September, but still has not heard back from the district.

“I appreciate Anissa’s efforts to restructure the special-education program, but I think maybe a feedback census form to every single parent in the district would be good,” she said. Then, turning to McNeil, she added, “You are not including us.”

Carmen Esquivel, a parent at Monroe Elementary, said her daughter who has Down syndrome was not paired with an appropriately trained aide. She said she faxed McNeil a letter, but never heard back.

Paul Kuhn, a parent at Washington Elementary, said a highly skilled and popular special-education teacher was transferred against her will from the school this year, two days before the first day, without notification to parents. In addition, he said his son’s instructional aide was called around the same time and asked not to show up on the first day. 

“My wife sent Miss McNeil an e-mail asking about this, and the e-mail was never responded to,” he said.

Not all of the parent criticism was aimed solely at McNeil. Dunham, for instance, said the problems predate the beginning of her short tenure. And Goleta Valley parent Colleen Lynch criticized the responsiveness of the top officials, saying that of the e-mails she sent out, only Superintendent Brian Sarvis and one of five board members — Nancy Harter — responded.

“You ask what you can do to help — respond back,” she said. “Give people a call.”

At one point in the meeting, McNeil got up to defend herself. She said she hired a behavioral specialist and an autism specialist to serve Peabody Elementary as soon as she learned of a shortage. She added that she already has held two training sessions for aides — one for children with behavior issues, the other for children with autism — and said two more are in the works.

“So I do hear you,” she said. “I’m not in isolation of parents. I’m at school sites every day.”

Also speaking on the side of the parents was a district employee, David Gilbertson, a school psychologist at Harding Elementary and La Cumbre Junior High schools.

“You may consider me a whistle-blower; I’m not going to use that term,” he said. “I’m a citizen who cares, I’m a professional who cares, and I’m here tonight to speak for the children who cannot speak for themselves — both special-education children and children who have been disenfranchised by this community because of their poverty, and their lack of opportunity, and the color of their skin.”

Gilbertson said that special-education teachers share many of the parents’ concerns, and they aired them at a recent teachers union meeting. He asked for the board to comply with state education laws.

Discussion among school board members was limited, but McNeil’s presentation did draw a rebuke from trustee Bob Noel, who referred to it as an “infomercial,” and who seemed to pin the blame on Sarvis.

Noel said he had asked Sarvis for a thorough review of the special-education department after the Oct. 28 board meeting, which also had witnessed testimony from a group of upset special-education parents.

“I didn’t hear any review of the issues those parents raised,” he said. “Instead I heard an … infomercial promoting the great job that special education does.”

At this, Sarvis tried to respond, and the two talked over each other. After the testy exchange died down, Sarvis said: “To have sufficient number of aides — that’s our problem. To have trained aides — that’s our problem. To have speech and language specialists — that’s our problem. I agree with you: These are our problems.”

As for McNeil’s 45-minute presentation, it gave a sweeping outline of the special-education department and touted the considerable academic gains made in the past year by Santa Barbara’s special-education students. McNeil also highlighted some of the department’s new programs, such as one that helps students acquire good study skills in junior high school, and another that helps improve the process of screening and locating students in need of special-education services.

Among those who spoke favorably of McNeil during the presentation was Emilio Handall, principal at McKinley Elementary School, which serves one of the most disadvantaged student populations in the district.

Handall said the school lately has been experiencing more success in getting special-education students to achieve the goals established for them in their education plans.

“I want to thank her publicly, because without her support, I would be at McKinley with a lot more headaches than I have already,” he said.

The board took no action, but that night trustee Nancy Harter asked Sarvis, Sawaske and McNeil to report back as a team to address the concerns raised at the meeting.

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