Report reveals $4.5 million in excess spending, recommends cuts
Special education parents and members of the Board of Education say they are disappointed by a recent study of the Berkeley Unified School District’s special education program.
The $5,500 report, prepared by School Services of California, Inc., a well-regarded Sacramento consulting firm, found that the Berkeley Unified School District spent $4.5 million more on special education in 2000-2001 than it received in county, state and federal funding, forcing the district to dip heavily into its general fund.
The study suggests several budget-cutting measures, including teacher layoffs and reductions in the number of aides hired by the district.
Some parents and teachers object to the proposed reductions. But the chief concern, among community and school board members, is that the report does not provide new information on district expenditures.
“It’s been that way for many years,” said board member Ted Schultz, referring to the multi-million dollar special education “encroachment” on the regular budget.
Virtually every school district in California dips into its regular budget to cover special education costs, according to the study. But the report found that the district’s encroachment for the 2000-2001 budget was more than twice as high as the 1999-2000 statewide average.
The study notes that encroachment figures are generally higher in the Bay Area than they are statewide, but does not provide actual numbers for neighboring school districts. Board member John Selawsky said that comparison would have been more revealing than a comparison to the statewide figures.
But school board members and special education parents who pushed for the study last year said encroachment numbers and budget cut recommendations were not their chief concern. What they really wanted was a line-by-line audit of special education expenditures.
“The report is aimed at the question: ‘how do we save money on special education?’ That’s not the question we were asking,” said board President Shirley Issel. “We were asking, ‘where is the money going?’”
“We’re very upset about it,” said Julia Epstein, an organizer for the Berkeley Special Education Parents Network, describing the School Services study. “It’s useless, just useless.”
Epstein said parents requested a financial audit because they were concerned that the district was not spending its special education money wisely in a number of areas, ranging from legal fees to training for instructional aides.
But Paul Goldfinger, vice president of School Services and author of the report, said his contract with the school district called for an evaluation of encroachment with an eye to potential cuts – not a financial audit.
“I am not an auditor. I am not an accountant,” Goldfinger said, suggesting that the district, which faces an estimated $5.4 million deficit next year, would be better served examining his recommendations for cuts than paying for an expensive, line-by-line audit.
Issel suggested that the contract, issued last year under the administration of interim Superintendent Stephen Gladstone, may not have been properly handled in the district office, leading to miscommunication with Goldfinger.
Current Superintendent Michele Lawrence said she plans to pull the contract and look into the issue.
Goldfinger recommended several budget-cutting measures in his report, including an increase in caseloads for resource specialist teachers from 24 to the statutory maximum of 28. Resource specialists provide special needs students with extra reading and math support.
“That would be a concern, although I think I could live with 28,” said Bill Joyce, a resource specialist at Cragmont Elementary School.
Joyce expressed greater concern with a Goldfinger recommendation to reduce hours for special education aides.
“My assistant is invaluable,” he said. “I don’t think that’s where we should cut the fat.”
The school board has already approved a number of special education cuts for next year. In February, the board issued 150 layoff notices, including six special education teachers, two special education administrators and two staff psychologists.
The district intends to rescind many of the 150 layoff notices in the coming months as the budget picture clears up, but Lawrence said the special education administrator lay-offs will likely remain in place. In the end, she said, one or two of the six special education teachers who received notice will be laid off.
Lawrence said the district is not planning any more special education cuts for the 2002-2003 school year and she emphasized that many of the recommendations in the Goldfinger report would have to be phased in over several years in order to comply with federal law. But, she said the district is looking at them nonetheless.
“As we begin to put our ship in order, all aspects of our program are going to come under examination,” Lawrence said.