Parents Line Up in Opposition to DPS Special-Education Cuts

A DPS parent holds a photo of her son with disabilities at the March 15 board of education meeting.
A DPS parent holds a photo of her son with disabilities at the March 15 board of education meeting. Maureen Welch
Earlier this year, Denver Public Schools announced it was cutting about $5 million from its budget, or about fifty central administration jobs, to provide schools with more funding in the 2018-2019 school year.

About 86 percent of those cuts will directly or partially affect district-level special-education services by eliminating central office jobs, vacancies and some supervisors, which comes out to about thirty job terminations in the DPS Student Equity and Opportunity department. Additionally, contracts with outside providers serving the highest-needs students will be eliminated. Those high-needs students will instead be served at a new district-run therapeutic day school housed on the Trevista at Horace Mann campus in Sunnyside.

Parents are worried that these cuts will mean a reduction in services and will strain existing special-education providers at DPS. So a group of parents took to the podium at the DPS Board of Education meeting on Thursday, March 15, to oppose the cuts.

"By stripping away the support with the reduction of staff, you will be increasing caseloads above recommended best practices, which will result in children being left behind in the system," says Rachael Fischer, who has a six-year-old son with disabilities in DPS.

DPS has tried to assure parents that these district-level cuts will neither reduce special-education services at schools nor cause a drop off in school funding. DPS says affected staff will have the opportunity to apply to similar school-based positions or other central positions in the district.

"The special-education department is not being cut — we'll just start with that very basic fact," says Eldridge Greer, associate chief of student equity and opportunity at DPS. "The amount the district provides through IDEA funding and district funds...was never being considered for a cut. We are reorganizing within my division, where we have individuals serving in central roles, where those resources and dollars will be [allocated] at the school level. We're shifting resources to get them ultimately closer to kids.

The district has touted that these cuts at the central level will help put more resources in schools to serve students. Those savings are expected to be spent in schools in several ways: additional resources for high-needs students like those who are homeless or living in foster care, pay raises for low-wage workers, hiring at least one full-time social worker or psychologist for every elementary school, more funding for "affective needs centers" on elementary campuses for students with emotional needs, reducing suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third-grade students, hiring behavior technicians to support challenging students, and creating a teaching residency program for first-time educators.

Of those proposed expenditures, $1.47 million is expected to be allocated to mental health resources in elementary schools. In 2016, Denver residents passed a mill levy override that included $15 million to fund "whole child" initiatives, including money for more school psychologists, social workers and nurses.

"We can't help but question what happened to that [mill levy] money [for mental health support]," says Pamela Bisceglia, executive director at Advocacy Denver, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities.

Bisceglia says that DPS previously made budget cuts to special-education funding in 2011, 2013 and 2015. This time around, she says, the district cuts are accompanied by some school-level cuts that principals are making to special-education services.

"I don't know that we disagree with them restructuring central administration, but I think what's unfortunate is Eldridge's report [to the board of education] is misleading," Bisceglia says. "The plan doesn't speak to what the district is going to do for kids with physical disabilities, ADD, learning disabilities."

The 2018-2019 budget is expected to be approved by the DPS board of education in May.
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
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