Longform

Communication Breakdown

Page 7 of 11

The threat of going to court was too much for the school district to risk, according to Jones, because if he won, his case would have set a precedent. And a precedent-setting case could open a floodgate of other parents requesting costly programs. BVSD spokeswoman Barbara Taylor agrees that Jones's case would have set a precedent, but says the district settled because if it had lost, "it would have forced us to accept this one clinical solution [ABA]."

Jones admits he was asking a lot of the district: He wanted it to fund an ABA program for his son for at least three years, at an annual cost of $30,000. "It's not that I didn't understand that it would cost a lot, but they were so concerned about not having to provide for other kids that they never considered Jack's needs. I gave them every possible out, and they didn't take it. I even offered to run this program for them and allow them to take credit for its success," he says. "I know what I was asking for would have been a drain on taxpayers. But most people with autism end up in institutions or on the streets. That's a much bigger cost to society."

That's why Jones is appalled at how much money the school district spent to fight him. The district's lawyers say they can't find the dollar amount that was spent on Jones's case; they say only that the district's legal fees for special education for the 1998-99 school year totaled $37,000. Apparently, however, the district can also use money from its insurance reserve fund. When Cohen requested information on the money the district spent on recent special-education legal battles -- there have been five in the last three years -- she received an outline of expenditures from the insurance reserve fund. The documents show that the district spent $253,000 from that account in the 1998-99 school year.

In fact, Cohen believes that the district spent five times more than the $30,000 Jones did on the case -- not including the settlement amount, which is confidential -- and she wants to know where the money went and why no one seems to be able to account for it.

The BVSD has had memory problems in the past when it comes to accounting. In June the school district's financial officers discovered that the special-education department had overspent its budget in the last two years by $678,000. Surplus money from the school district that was supposed to pay for additional special-education teachers this year was used instead to balance the department's budget. Special education was the district's only department allowed to conduct its own accounting, but since the over-expenditure was discovered, the special-education budget has fallen back under the auspices of the district's financial-services office.

Even though the district settled with Jones, he had to fork over a lot of money up front in legal and educational fees. And that's something a lot of parents can't do. "I had to put my job on hold to fight the school district. My wife and I had to triple-mortgage our house," Jones says. "Parents who can't do that are shit out of luck."

hese days, plenty of parents in Boulder Valley are feeling the same way.

At a recent informational meeting about special education in the BVSD, administrators bemoaned the lack of funding for public schools. The BVSD has a shortage of para-educators, or teaching assistants, who provide a lot of support for special-education students; even after a recent wage increase, the BVSD can still afford to pay its assistants only $8.49 an hour. The special-education department has a $20 million budget, most of which goes toward salaries for its 200 special-education teachers and approximately 150 special-education para-professionals. BVSD special-education director Jean Riordan says Boulder's special-education budget is comparable to other districts' and that all districts in the state are "in very tough times in education, and in special education in particular."

With the school district going through such dire financial times, parents are wondering why administrators are making it difficult for them to send additional specialists to school with their kids at their own expense. On November 9, Riordan sent a memo to all special-education teachers informing them that because of "potential legal and financial liability" for the district, parents who wish to send additional educators to school with their children will now be required to sign a waiver releasing the district of all legal responsibility.

In the memo, Riordan explains that "parents may request permission to provide, at their own expense, additional services above and beyond what the IEP Team has determined necessary to provide the student with a free and appropriate public education," but that by accommodating such requests, "there is an implication that the district acknowledges that the services it is providing through its staff are not adequate to allow the child to benefit."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon