When Cash Strapped Schools “Sing the Blues”

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I loved your training conference, but… I’m quite depressed, ready to leave my job, maybe even my profession.  I am a school district  Speech-Language Pathologist with an unbearably large caseload.

I just don’t know how we service providers can provide a higher level of service to everyone who needs it.

I see no real solution. Districts will continue to focus on a financial bottom line. Providers will continue to struggle with the decision to stay in their jobs.

We understand the dilemma you face. Pete and I both worked “in the trenches” for many years. Pete was a probation officer, I was a CPS worker, then a psychologist in a community mental health center. We faced issues that are similar to those you describe. Lessons learned…When Pete and I worked in the public sector, there wasn’t much money, much less than now (even with financial shortfalls). I earned $296/month in my first job as a protective services worker.

Lessons Learned: Valuing and Respecting Children and Families

Working in schools is different from working in social services or community mental health or juvenile justice – there is a different mindset and attitude toward children and families.

In the places I worked – social services and community mental health – administrators did not view family members who advocated for children as unreasonable or greedy or wrong headed. The administrators had enormous compassion for our clients and conveyed that compassion and respect to those of us who were new to the field.

I’ve never forgotten the lessons learned from them – to value our clients and treat them with respect, always.

At one point, I worked in a public school system as part of graduate school training. Too often, the attitude of the helping professionals in schools was not helpful. I was surprised at the parent-bashing and parent blaming.

This wasn’t helpful and it seemed to relieve school psychs and school social workers from their responsibilities to act as advocates for children and their families.

School Administrators “Crying the Blues”

You say you don’t know how service providers can provide a higher level of service, even if this is necessary to meet the unique needs of children. Put another way, you are stretched too thin. The solution is clear: the school system needs to hire more service providers. School admins will say, “We don’t have enough $$.” Don’t believe it.

School administrators have been crying the blues for as long as I can remember, and I’m 63 years old. Schools are “cash strapped” in good times and bad times. The problem isn’t insufficient $$ to provide services, but major problems in how dollars are allocated.

I’ll give you an example. As Pete mentioned during the program, we live in a rural county with a population of about 10,000. There are about 1,000 students who attend one of three public schools –  an elementary school, a middle school, and a high school.

The high school has about 300 students — and SIX football coaches. But this school system “cannot afford” to have a nurse in each school or enough speech language pathologists, PTs, OTs.  How many athletic coaches, speech language pathologists, and school nurses does a school need? I could give you more examples but you know what I mean.

Allocating $$$ Wisely

If the school budget is allocated wisely, with the goal of meeting the needs of students (not the adults who work in the system), there is enough $$. When schools spend too much money on extraneous things, like retreats for administrators and an abundance of football coaches, I’m not surprised that there isn’t enough left to meet the educational needs of the children.

I think the solution needs to come from within or it won’t be accepted. There is power in numbers. People who work in schools have more power than they realize, especially if they bond  together in a group, study how funds are allocated, and educate their school board members about what needs to be done differently.

Thanks for writing. Thanks for caring about the kids. You aren’t the enemy. I can’t say that about many school administrators I’ve met, not all but many.

  1. I agree about the allocation of funds. I worked in a 5 star school who had money to set up a television station at their high school, but no money to pay special ed. coordinators for evaluations. They were the only district of that size in the area who did not have coordinators on staff. When I worked there, the entire staff, including all non certified staff, were issued two embroidered shirts, one in celebration of their Gold Star status. The special staff, however, were begging materials off of the ESL teacher. This was a district that was notorious about denying services to kids in need to save money. Kids who had been in the district since kindergarten went to middle school as non-readers. Aides were only hired to help out in general ed.

  2. It is more a matter of priorities than it is a matter of money. If something is a community’s and/or superintendent’s priority, they will find the money. It is part of our responsibility as patrons of our school corporations to encourage our school boards that special education is and should be a priority. As a gentleman by the name of H. Ross Perot once said – long before he was a potential presidential candidate – “It is cheaper to send them to Harvard than it is to Huntsville.” For those who do not know what Huntsville is, it is one of Texas’ notorious state prisons. The same is true of our special needs students. It is far cheaper to invest in their education than it is to have taxpayers support them for the rest of their adult lives.

  3. I agree that one of the most significant obstacles to quality special education services is large caseloads. In resource I have kids k-5, all areas of disability, all content areas, and major scheduling requirements. Teaching any program with fidelity is impossible because of the wide range of needs in each of my classes. How can I possibly teach a 5th reading lesson to one child, a 3rd grade math lesson to another, and help a third child with organization at the same time? I typically have 5-7 kids at a time all with very different needs. Administrators should be held responsible for ensuring that teachers really can do what we are asked to do. The second issue that creates obstacles is the failure to actually provide necessary curriculum materials needed.

  4. LYNN-Thanks for chiming in. As a parent, I appreciate the fact that you are on this BLOG! I have been saying for a very long time that the people (educators, service providers) working with our kids have not been given the tools they need in order to help our kids, your post just further affirmed to me that by failing our educators, we are failing our kids! Good luck to you and I really hope you keep pushing for the kids you work with!

  5. Susan B, thank you for sharing. I looked up the numbers and I am stunned, simply stunned. I was told by my district that my small purchase order of $200 for materials was more than was left in the speech/language budget. I was surprised, as I had only purchased ink for $50 before that.

    Now when I crunch the numbers, this district is getting about $14000 for each of the 25 students I case manage, not to mention the other 30 also receiving speech along with other services. Where is all the money going? Not to the students that’s for sure. This is excellent information to have.

    Something that goes on in our district is in the administrator’s contract, they have it written if their differentials are more than 2% difference they get an automatic raise. This while all the teachers took pay cuts these last 2 years. Sad state.

  6. According to the letter SusanB posted:

    “The amount in your award for Section 619 represents the full amount of funds to which you are entitled. However, the amount shown in your award for the Section 611 program is only part of the total funds that will be awarded to you for FFY 2010. Of the $11,505,211,000 appropriated for Section 611 in FFY 2010, $2,912,828,000 is available for awards on July 1, 2010, and $8,592,383,000 will be available for awards on October 1, 2010.”

    If you divide the $11.5 billion by the number of kids who receive special ed in SC, you’ll get a good idea about how much the the feds pay states per student. So much for the cash-strapped, “unfunded mandate” excuse for not educating children with disabilities.

  7. SusanB, Thanks so much for posting that. If they give every state $11.5 BILLION dollars per year, that’s a half trillion per year. This amounts to $65,000 per child in Virginia? How can this be?

  8. When Cash Strapped Schools “Sing the Blues” by SusanB – This is a eye opener. Thanks for sharing.

  9. I disagree Linda M, Pam is dead on the money with this one. Go to the US DOE’s website and so a search for the name of your state superintendent and find the IDEA grant award letter for your state. We could educate entire third world countries for the money they get…..we are talking about BILLIONS of dollars PER STATE per year!

    According to this link this state, is getting, “$11,505,211,000 appropriated for Section 611 in FFY 2010” YEP, it is BILLION!

    Here is the link to this state’s award letter, parents be prepared to be FLOORED:

  10. As an SLP recently compelled to resign from my public school job, I sympathize with parents of children who have severe communication needs. You have been mislead into believing that the schools alone will address their problems adequately. Large caseloads, scheduling nightmares & having to treat in groups prohibits this. Get outpatient tx.

    I was a advocate for my students. Wanting to provide services that were appropriate & likely to result in success & progress, I was often met with resistance from admin & teachers. Couldn’t write IEPs w/my own language for the childs’ individual strengths, needs & goals, I had to use templates so “those who review the IEPs could do so more easily”. My request for aides to help with behaviors so I could target speech goals was denied.

    So sad, but I hope to make a difference elsewhere.

  11. Thank you for you answer Pam. I am a SLP in the school and feel overwhelmed constantly with the workload. This district has had real difficulty keeping a SLP…this is a new position for me this year. So many issues – far too much work, no policies in place, no other SLPs to ask for guidance, tiny materials budget…generally no support. But I love working with the kids and seeing their progress. I have had to do the same thing though, group the kids because there are so many other demands on my time. Recently I tallied how I spent my time and now have documentation that there literally isn’t enough time in my day to get all the work done. After reading your article, I think I will approach administration again about getting more help. I don’t know though. I can’t see myself staying in the public school systerm with this amount of stress.

  12. I believe parent bashing is part of the problem. The IEP team was intended to work together as a team. They act like two teams fighting to win the super bowl!!! May the best team one win and the student…can go with the winning team!!!! The focus on the laws keeps the us against them team in play. Blaming is easier than educating students. Lack of money is just an excuse for not succeeding.

  13. Like all generalizations, your comments don’t necessarily fit. I work for a school system that shows great compassion for students and has bent over backwards to meet needs despite being cash-strapped. There are so many considerations from so many different levels, it’s hard to balance it all. No Child Left Behind is one of many unfunded mandates, and we need to find the money to pay for testing, along with everything else. There are no easy answers. If there were, we’d have found them already!

  14. MPAM, there are some college programs like the one you describe. Google ClemsonLife Program, is a great program! There are several like it all over the country. Good Luck!

  15. Funding continues to be the issue. I have a HS Senior with Down Syndrome. Until we hit this district, she was educated with her peers with SpEd supports. The “program” this district suggestS is way below her abilities. I don’t need a glorified babysitter – SHE needs work skills and the ability for employment and self living.

    I continue to get budget and threats that if I remove her from district I’ll lose support. The next 6 years are very important to her and her FUTURE. I’d love a college experience but fully understand that she’s not capable of being a nerosurgeon 🙂 But she would thrive in a college type envoronment if it met her needs —– anyone have suggestions?

  16. Had to share…Sitting at a meeting today, when someone from the state DOE said to the Title I school coordinators, “You cannot spend seventeen thousand dollars of Title I (NCLB) dollars on a “retreat” for staff. While you could probably write that off as appropriate use of Title I funds, as a state we are just not going to put ourselves in that position”.

    THANK God someone has some sense! The revolution is coming…it is called ACCOUNTABILITY! Parents, we have GOT to be in these meetings! You want to facilitate change for our kids? We HAVE GOT TO GET OUR FOOT IN THE DOOR AND BE WHERE THE DECISIONS ARE BEING MADE!

  17. As a former school board member, I believe in bringing such issues to the public notice. Discussions of attorney fees should be held in public. The community should know how their tax money is being spent. Our school boards provide one of the few ways we have to exert control on how our taxes are used. If you cannot get the issue on the board agenda, discuss the problem with a local journalist. Always, be civil and never use bombast to try to make your point. Asking questions is a first step. If you do not get answers, a letter to the editor of the local paper may bring the issue to light. Attend school board meetings. Take notes of what the members say about spending. Ask for a copy of the school budget. Ask questions about it. An informed public is the best way to control this kind of spending just to “win”.

  18. I concur with Pam’s observations. Our sports teams have adult to child ratios 2 to 3 times smaller than found in special ed classes. It is to some extent a priority problem, not completely a resource problem. This is an excellent point for parents to identify when this issue comes up in the IEP meeting.

  19. What can you do if your school is forcing your child to work for free as part of coop. This is the only student to be working for free? They have violated her IEP. We filed for due process in 2007, that issue is still in federal court today. Yet they continue to do as they please. They retained 2 law firms. US DOE told them 8 months ago to remove private information from the web. They refuse. 7 years ago they were in gross violation of the ADA laws. The AG of our state made a ruling they were illegally retaliating against our child and family. The list of violations go on and on. Board members have told people they will just out last us. To date they have spent more than $150,000 on legal fees. Can’t retain another attorney for new issues. Any suggestions?

  20. Sandy,

    I think school district’s pay a retainer for lawfirms to represent them out of Education funds. Insurance companies are regulated by the Government and they investigate and prosucute fraudulant claims.

    I can only speak from our personal experience in saying that the services provided by the school’s attorney would be considered fraudulant since the school’s attorney fees were paid during multiple years when the school district provided no academic services for my child at all.

    The school attorney is aware of falsified documentation that allows the school to fraudulantly collect State and Federal funding.

    The IDEA does not regulate attorey ethics and the lack of enforecement has created a vicious cycle that continues to guarantee wealth to attorneys willing to turn their head to infractions of the law.

  21. Pam is dead on the money with this. However, I look at when my school district uses money as an excuse to not provide services as a blessing! I love asking them to put their refusal due to lack of funding IN WRITING, and love documenting this in my Miss Manners follow up letter, the money just seems to materialize then! I can find no case law, where a school district was allowed to use lack of funding as a reason to refuse to provide a FAPE!

  22. When the school hired an attorney, we had to hire one also. We were told by our attorney that the district’s attorney is paid through their insurance that the district has. If we could of afforded 80,000 for a due processing hearning our attorney explained that the school district has to notify their insurance company and then the insurance company hire a defense attorney that wouldn’t have any special education backround. To bad we didn’t have 80,000 to pay of attorney because our child is so far behind because they’re isn’t accountability period and again the child is the one that has to try to fix this. We handed our home over to the bank because no other school district won’t accept kids on IEP’s. Is this justice?Our kids have made more gains in 3 months then in over 2 years this new school & don’t agree they have 2 clean up the mess.

  23. I find it outrageous and unacceptable that my school district sang the blues about the budget and continued to have their attorney attend every one of our team meetings. Poor decision making does not make a better budget or a sound IEP.

  24. Everyone is busy congratulating themselves for sustaining IDEA for 35 years, but IDEA is woefully inadequate. Accountability for a truly meaningful and individualized education is low, and student achievement is often grossly misrepresented. The climate b/n school staff and parents (at least in MD) is so hostile that parents are seen as trouble makers if they bring an advocate to an IEP meeting!

    I continue to advocate for families and raise awareness of the needs of students on the autism spectrum, but had to accept that our son’s educational goals are broader than anything a public system will ever embrace willingly. Mastery of these goals is as important as grade-level academics in leading to an independent life and meaningful work. We withdrew our son from the public system to educate him at home, at least for now.

  25. I think that this situation (financial considerations trump education) will continue as long as two conditions are met:
    (1) Administrators are not held accountable for the poor academic outcomes of the students
    (2) Administrators are promoted based on ability to balance the budget.
    I feel for the staff that have to rationalize what they have to do to maintain their jobs, but I am often given to wonder why “I was just following orders” cuts it in some situations but not others.
    At any rate, I view this as an organizational dysfunction where we voters have allowed a system to be created in our names that serves the kids so poorly while at the same time servicing some of the adults (but not all by a long shot) too well.

  26. As a parent that has two children with disabilities, I totally agree with David. Our child made no academic gains for three years in a row. When I brought this to the special education director we were told “That we just need to accept the fact that our child is the way he is and to deal with it”. As parents we never raised our voice but gave him a speech of his life time, “shame on you.” The district hired an attorney and let us tell you that from then on it only got worse. We questioned is this school district’s money being wasted because they made an mistake.

    I’m an advocate for families and I’m getting tired of district’s saying that they don’t have the money to provide new programs. Well these children need to be provided FAPE and ask if the family can have that in writing.
    Schools needs to get rid of wasted programs period.

  27. There should be a spending cap placed on the amount a school district is allowed to spend on attorneys per child.

    If the school feels that “their” attorney should be involved above the cap, the legal services should be considered a related service on the child’s IEP. This would allow school district’s to document the intended educational improvement that “their” attorney is providing for the student.

    It is difficult as a parent, to believe that my child’s best interest is on the top of the agenda when more is spent on school attorneys than services being provided for my child’s education.

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