By Jorge Casuso
July 20, 2009 -- Sara Woolverton – who is widely credited with creating a successful special education program in the Seattle School District that drew students from far outside the area – will take over the same program for the Santa Monica-Mailbu Unified School District (SMMUSD).
Woolverton was hired Thursday by the School Board and will take over a program that has been under fire for years from special education parents and, more recently, from Santa Monica City officials, who temporarily withheld funding from the district pending policy changes.
A 25-year veteran of special education programs, Woolverton will replace Ruth Valadez, who resigned as the district’s special education director in February, after two years on the job.
As special-education manager for Seattle Public Schools, Woolverton helped build a program with a range of services that drew parents with children with special needs from other states.
"They get a diagnosis of autism in Wichita and call us up and say, 'We're moving to Seattle next month,' " Woolverton told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2006. "You build it and they will come -- that is part of our problem."
As with the Santa Monica District – which faces a budget shortfall that could reach $12 million -- the Seattle program faced a multimillion-dollar budget deficit that prompted cuts.
But Woolverton faces an even bigger challenge in Santa Monica.
While the 47,000-student Seattle School District spends about $20 million to supplement State and Federal funding for special education, SMMUSD spends about half of that for fewer than 12,000 students.
In addition, the local district’s special education program has come under fire and is in the process of being overhauled after parents complained that the District had failed their children, leaving parents ashamed, frustrated and powerless.
The District commissioned an independent report that vindicated longstanding complaints by special education parents that the District’s practice has forced them to bargain for their children’s education behind closed doors, then barred them from disclosing the terms.
The controversial policies led to the City Council last year to withhold additional funding for the District pending changes in how the program is run.
The district subsequently made settlement agreements a last resort.
But parents were reportedly not satisfied with the progress made under Valadez, who replaced Tim Walker, the unpopular head of special education who resigned from the post under pressure from angry parents.
Woolverton is the first major hire made under Superintendent Tim Cuneo, who assumed the district’s top post a year ago.
Woolverton was most recently a special education director for the Everett Public Schools in Washington. Her contract expired last month.
Her 25-year career began as a special educator in Seattle Public Schools in 1984. She was then the special educator for Edmonds School District and the special education director for Seattle schools.