Pasadena Unified’s Special Education Program Faces Severe Cuts, and It’s Not Alone Among the Imperiled

Cuts also affect many children enrolled through the area’s many family-oriented nonprofits, like Five Acres and Hillsides

Published : Thursday, December 14, 2017 | 6:29 AM

Mother and son with down syndrome having fun

Image from Pasadena Unified School District's Special Education webpage.

Parents of children under Pasadena Unified School District’s Special Education program are outspoken about the program being hit disproportionately hard by budget cuts as the District grapples with a growing budget deficit.

Longtime Pasadena Board of Education member Scott Phelps, himself a veteran educator, concurred this is a very perilous time for the program but said that the current budget deficit is exceptionally severe and that every Pasadena Unified program and department will surely experience cuts.

“I’ve been a board member for 12-and-a-half years, and I’ve never seen the dire physical constraints that we’re in,” Phelps said. “It’s like the perfect storm, where you have declining enrollment continuing. It’s gone down by 8,000 students, by a third, since the turn of the century – from about 24,000 to about 16,000. So that means the amount of money for special education has been going down. At the same time, Special Ed costs have been going up.”

Phelps did point out however, “we are not cutting any 1 to 1 aids.”

Parents and Pasadena Unified officials met at a community meeting Tuesday night to discuss the issues related to the District move to eliminate at least 53 Special Education Instructional Aide positions, which has caused many parents to worry.

Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education member Scott Phelps

Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education member Scott Phelps

Hosted by Dr. Elizabeth J. Blanco, Chief of Specialized Instructional Services at PUSD, the meeting was intended to update community members and PUSD staff about the Special Education budget, and to answer questions regarding Resolution No. 2432, which effectively authorizes PUSD to eliminate some jobs “due to a lack of work or lack of funds.”

Last week, PUSD Associate Superintendent Hilda Ramirez Horvath did not mention finances as the cause of the job cuts. Rather, she said the cuts are part of a process to “increase efficiencies in the delivery of services provided to students with disabilities.”

Dr. Blanco did not respond to multiple requests for communication about the special education cuts and Tuesday’s community meeting. But many parents strongly oppose reducing the Instruction Aide positions at the Special Education program.

“I’m sure that if we look carefully probably are areas that can be touched first, but they’re starting with one of the most vulnerable and that’s the part that I don’t understand,” says parent Vera Nercessian. “If there’s an instructional aid in the class, it’s probably because there’s children that need that assistance. I really urge the board of the parent to look into other areas of the district that they could potentially work on and that they could cut. They haven’t presented us a plan or showed us any other areas that they are cutting.”

“My concern is that I don’t know if they fully know what’s going on with the kids,” says Cristina Garcia, another parent. “Do they even visit the kids? Do they even talk to the teachers? They’re just making cuts. I think that was one of my concerns is that, why special education?”

“Kids with special needs need early childhood development, and having a one-on-one assistant helps our kids improve in every area of their life,” parent Elsie Castellon said. “If we eliminate them, this is going to affect our children and they might be at risk for getting hurt when they’re in the playground and anywhere around the school.”

Castellon adds that even with a big budget deficit, Pasadena Unified should leave the Special Education department alone.

“This shouldn’t even be in the agenda,” Castellon said. “Our kids, that’s not something that’s negotiable; our special-needs children – their education is not negotiable.”

Marlene Benites understands that funding problems at PUSD could affect some of the District’s programs, but she is particularly worried about having to lay off special education instructional aides.

“What are we proposing once those aids are being pulled out? How are we going to fill that gap?” she asks.

The Special Education program also serves a large number of children under the care of Pasadena nonprofits like Hillsides, a resource organization for vulnerable children and families.

Joseph M. Costa, Hillsides’ President and Chief Executive Officer said it’s difficult for Pasadena Unified to be in such a dire financial situation, and surely it will not only be the Special Education program that will suffer.

“They got a large concentration of foster kids, and in addition to the foster kids, there are other kids in need of Special Education Services, and they’re obviously having a hard time being able to fund that,” Coasta said.

Board Member Phelps said one of the important things that needs to be explained to the public is that funding for most PUSD programs have not been increasing even when costs have been. For Special Education, he said the same expenditure amount budgeted literally years ago is being allocated today.

“The cost that we incur for placing kids in non-public schools, we’re spending the same amount, roughly $6 plus million, on non-public schools for a much smaller number of students than we were roughly 8 years ago.  We paid for their attendance at various residential facilities,” Phelps said.  “So it’s still about the same cost even though the number kids served in our public schools have gone way down.”

Phelps explains that many other factors contribute to the worsening fiscal situation at Pasadena Unified, which he said is true in almost all school districts nationwide.

“Healthcare cost as you know, don’t ever go down, so they’re drifting up. Then we have our employees who have built into the salary schedule, many of them with annualized increases, and that’s ‘invisible,’ but it happens,” Phelps said.

“With all these factors and the fact that we haven’t made reductions in staff when we settled with the teacher’s union a year and a half ago, the conclusion by the foremost statewide experts was: we have too many staff so that’s why we aren’t able to pay people as much as other districts do,” Phelps said. “Everybody knew that.”

Phelps said reducing the staffing through attrition and retirement hasn’t reduced expense at a fast enough rate to balance the budget.

“That hasn’t worked, that hasn’t been enough,” he said.

Overall, Phelps said he believes that the root of the problem lies in the scale of the fiscal crisis; it is, he said, unprecedented, worsened by declining enrolment, and it can only be tempered if Pasadena Unified and the community has enough political will to take steps to remedy the situation.

“Ordinarily, I think, we all have big hearts; we don’t want to cut Special Ed but this is literally an emergency fiscal situation,” Phelps.