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In turbulent year for special ed, city district's budget under scrutiny

May 3, 2018

School adminsitrators, including board members and Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams, listen to public comment on the budget.
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Editor's note: Parents are outraged at the apparent mismanagement of special education in the Rochester City School District. In the second of two stories about the district's special education program, the recent budget proposal aims to address some of parents' concerns, but some worry it doesn't go far enough.

In a lot of ways, this year’s school budget is like any other year. Almost $1 billion spread out across 53 schools and almost 30,000 kids. Positions added, positions cut, a deficit that needs balancing.

Bridget Hurley
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But in the wake of a tumultuous year for special education, the budget is under particularly intense scrutiny by parents and other advocates.

“Budgets are moral documents. Budgets are statements of priority.”

Bridget Hurley is the director of advocacy with the Children’s Agenda. This was the youth advocacy group’s first year analyzing the district’s budget.

“They’re numbers, but they’re much, much more. They are the public communication to the community that this is what the city school district feels is important.”

If you look at this year’s budget, you can see some of those priorities. For example, it restores 11 administrative positions charged with overseeing special education students. It also adds 14 new positions for special education teachers.

But parents in the district are concerned about this year’s cuts detailed in the budget -- in particular, the 31 paraprofessional positions being eliminated. These are professionals who work directly with students with special needs in the classroom.

At the last public hearing about the budget, parents and advocates raised their concerns. One by one, they stood up and asked about the cuts.

This past school year, the special education system has been in turmoil. There have been three different directors since September. In March, a special education student died after wandering away from school. These all follow a scathing report released in 2017 that found the district was out of compliance with state and federal regulations regarding special education.

Melanie Funchess
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School board member Melanie Funchess was at the public hearing on the budget. She said she hears parents’ concerns -- she’s also a parent of a student in special education.

“This is personal for me. I don’t want any other parent to go through what I’ve been through.”

But she said adding more positions to an education system that is broken might not be the best way to move forward.

She’s currently heading up a committee that will propose solutions to the Board of Education to some of the district’s biggest systemic issues, such as how to ensure early intervention for students with special needs, how to support the existing special education staff, and how to improve consistency of services throughout elementary, middle and high school.

“The problems are deep and vast. And I know people want quick fixes, but I don’t lie. We didn’t get here overnight. We’re not going to get out of here overnight.”

The Board of Education is expected to vote on the budget later this month. After that, it needs the approval of City Council.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.