Email: RIF Cuts Applied Unfairly to Special Needs Students

[Ed. Note: This is an email that I sent to Dr. Wardynski and the Board on Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 11:17:17 PM CDT. I have received no response concerning any of the issues I have raised. I shared many of these same concerns at the board meeting on July 21, 2011. I, again, received no response to any of these concerns.]

From: Russell Winn <russ@geekpalaver.com>

Subject: RIF Cuts Applied Unfairly to Special Needs Students

Date: July 16, 2011 11:17:17 PM CDT

To: Laurie McCaulley <lamccaulley@gmail.com>, David Blair <david.blair.hcsboard@gmail.com>, Sarah Savage <ssavage@leadershiphsv.org>, Jennesse Robinson <personalbest@knology.net>, Alta Morrison <amorrison_hcs@comcast.net>, Topper Birney <topperb@knology.net>, E. Casey Wardynski <drw@hsv.k12.al.us>

Dr. Wardynski and the Board of Education:

I’m writing to draw your attention to the unfair, and although I’m not a lawyer I believe illegal, burden that has been placed on Special Needs students with the reduction in force that took place on February 10, 2011 and April 21, 2011. I have taken these numbers from the publicly available school board minutes.

According to these minutes, these two RIFs resulted in 259 Support Personnel (Probationary and non-Probationary combined) losing their jobs. Of these 259 support personnel who were cut, 41% (106) were Special Education personnel. This number includes the following positions:  “Instructional Assistants” (99), “Interpreter/Tutor Hearing Impaired” (2), “Social Workers” (4), and the “Testing Specialist” (1).

If this were all of the cuts made to special education, they would be difficult enough to recover from. Unfortunately, these numbers don’t include the Instructional Assistants who were ONIN employees that were laid off when the that contract was cancelled on February 17, 2011. While the board did not publish exact numbers of personnel, it did publish the dollar value assigned to the savings realized from canceling that contract. $2,170,660 (or 53% of the total) were identified as “Special Education and Even Start personnel. Additional neither of these numbers identifies the Special Needs teachers and Adaptive PE personnel who were laid off as a part of the 154 Non-tenured Certified Teachers who also lost their job.

So at least 41% of the Support Personnel laid off were those who worked directly with Special Needs children, and yet, the special needs population of Huntsville City Schools is about 12%.

These cuts have not been made “across the board” as Dr. Moore claimed during the April 21, 2011 board meeting.

There were four times as many Instructional Assistants who work directly with special needs kids laid off as Clerical Assistants.

There were five times as many Instructional Assistants laid off as Custodians.

No other single group has been asked to sacrifice more from these cuts than Special Education.

The only response that I’ve received to these numbers so far are the job postings that took place on July 14, 2011. These postings included exactly one Instructional Assistant who will be tasked with serving two schools: Ridgecrest and Rolling Hills.

As I have mention, I believe this imbalance maybe illegal.

Alabama State Code 16-39-3 states that, “If sufficient funds are not available to a school board to provide fully for all the provisions of this chapter as well as the educational needs of nonexceptional children, such board must prorate all funds on a per capita basis between exceptional and nonexceptional children.”

The board has placed at a minimum 41% of the budget cuts on just over 12% of the student population.

Dr. Wardynski, our children cannot wait any longer for this discrepancy to be addressed. I will be happy to work with you in any way I can to address this problem. If the Special Needs consolidation plan (placing special needs students at both AAA and Challenger) could be shared with parents (as we were promised by Ms. Amy Sledge and Dr. Janice Pruitt in a meeting with parents on Wednesday, April 6, 2011), I am aware of numerous parents who would be happy to work with you and the system in addressing the needs of our children. Special needs parents are used to being hyper-involved in the education of their children. Please take advantage of this by including us in your decisions concerning our children.

I will close with just one illustration. This year, my son was at Challenger Elementary after having been moved from Farley Elementary pre-school program the year before. We were not happy with the transfer, but we did not fight it. As it worked out, we ended up being quite happy with the quality of education that he received during the first half of the year at Challenger. Mrs. Niki Bowling, Mrs. Terry Klinkhammer, and Mrs. Kim Collins (his teacher and the two aides who worked most closely with my son), did incredible work with assisting him in transitioning from Farley to Challenger. (Change is extremely difficult for kids on the autism spectrum.)

Immediately after the Christmas break, Mrs. Bowling was ordered on extended medical leave due to a complicated pregnancy. She was replaced by a substitute teacher, Mrs. Susan Cooley. Because of the superb work of Mrs. Terry Klinkhammer and Mrs. Kim Collins in providing continuity in my son’s education, Mrs. Cooley was able to step into Mrs. Bowling’s role and aid my son in taking huge leaps in his language and social interaction. Honestly we were concerned if he would ever be capable of these leaps. In fact, thanks to the work their work and his Occupational Therapist, Mrs. Kelly Smith, Matthew was included into Mrs. Patti McCord’s Kindergarten Classroom by the end of the year.

The day after my son’s first inclusion, Mrs. Kelly Smith wrote me to say: “The kids at his table cheered when Mrs. McCord announced that he would sit with them. They like him. They ask some questions but are accepting of his singing and talking.”

This is the kind of excellence that we need to celebrate in our system, and Mrs. Cooley, Mrs. Klinkhammer, and Mrs. Kim Smith were crucial to making this happen. Unfortunately because of the reduction in force made to the system neither Mrs. Cooley, Mrs. Klinkhammer, nor Mrs. Kim Collins have positions in the coming year. And since there has been only a single Instructional Assistant position opened up for next year, it is highly unlikely that any of these excellent teachers will be working in our schools next year.

This is a tragedy.

Most Instructional Assistants make approximately $10,000 a year. I’m certain that our substitute teachers make no more than that.

Please make rehiring Instructional Assistants a priority. Our students can succeed if we give them even a minimum of resources. I challenge you sir, to consider this with every hiring, salary and financial decision you make. Ask yourself this question: how many instructional assistants is this position or decision going to cost our students who cannot speak up for themselves? If you do this, one day my son and hundreds like him will sing in your honor.

Thank you,

Russell Winn

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.