Principals blindsided by more cuts to special needs

Principals blindsided by more cuts to special needs
flickr/Terrapin Flyer
Principals blindsided by more cuts to special needs
flickr/Terrapin Flyer

Principals blindsided by more cuts to special needs

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In an unprecedented move, Chicago Public Schools plans to cut another $12 million from special education based on official enrollment numbers released late last week.

Typically, special education staffing is left alone once the school year begins.

Principals were first told they would have until the end of the day Tuesday to file appeals, but after fielding complaints, CPS officials moved the deadline back to November 2.

Special education took a deep cut over the summer after district officials did a review of how students with special learning needs were being supported. That audit led to the elimination of 500 positions, roughly 200 of which were supposedly vacant.

The move saved $42.3 million, but led to outcry from some schools who worried the cuts would jeopardize their ability to comply with federal law. The cuts announced late Friday would mean another roughly 70 teachers and aides at more than 400 schools would be laid off.

“No one told principals this was happening,” said Nathan Pietrini, principal of Hawthorne Scholastic Academy in Lakeview. “All the sudden, I had five special ed teachers. Now, I’ve got three.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the cuts are connected to enrollment, but district figures show that Hawthorne only lost two students. Nearby Hamilton Elementary actually enrolled about 20 more students. Principal James Gray said they also had a handful more students with special learning needs.

“I did not expect any special ed cuts,” Gray said Monday. “It’s just simply not possible to cut my staff with the inclusion model that we’re using and cover the needs of our kids. Without our five teachers, we would be out of compliance.”

Special education is costly for CPS, but advocates, teachers and principals say there’s a reason for that. Federal law requires public schools to meet the needs of all students with learning difficulties and to do so without isolating them from other children.

In a letter to principals Sunday afternoon obtained by WBEZ, the head of special education Markay Winston said CPS is “undertaking a transformation of the way we deliver services” to students with special needs.”

“It is both our obligation and our responsibility to ensure that our children receive their services,” Winston wrote.

But Gray and Pietrini both said the changes are more numbers-focused than they are student-focused.

“Special education is so much more complicated than everything else,” Pietrini said. “Special education staffing can’t be reduced to a formula. It can’t be you’ve got this many kids, or that many minutes, so you get this many teachers.”

Rod Estvan, education policy analyst at the disability-rights group Access Living, said there will be fewer special education teachers to support the regular classroom teachers, which could lead to more students in isolated classrooms. If that’s the case, the district could end up out of compliance with federal law.

“They’ll be penalized by the federal government on next year’s allocation for federal dollars for (special education),” Estvan said. “They’ll have even less money to function.”

CPS is in a budget crunch. The Board of Education passed a budget last month that relies on imaginary money and a gamble that state lawmakers will give the district $480 million. The cuts to special education could put more pressure on Springfield, but Estvan isn’t convinced it will be enough.

“I don’t think that the idea that Chicago has to lay off a bunch of people is going to make them suddenly pony up the money they haven’t ponied up so far,” he said.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.