The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Turn up the lights

By Frank Gruber

For years, since this column's earliest days ( "Politics Without Power," May 11, 2001), I've been writing about how school boards in California don't have much power because they don't control their revenues, and that this lack of power has had an impact on how they conduct themselves.

This "political culture of helplessness," to quote myself, has been bad news for California schools.

It's always amazed me that in Santa Monica, for example, some of the most capable, intelligent and articulate people you could ever meet get elected to the school board, and then when they are on the dais, they start spouting platitudes and are afraid to venture an opinion before hearing what the superintendent has to say.

Last Thursday evening, as I sat in the audience watching the school board discuss the special education audit ("Special Ed Parents Plead for Change," April 4, 2008), and as I shook my figurative head about how, when presented with this long-awaited report, and testimony from parents of special needs children and other members of the community, only one board member could muster enough initiative to give direction to District staff about what to do, I came up with a new theory.

Maybe it wasn't, as I have posited before, the combination of the Serrano v. Priest equal funding decision and Prop. 13 that had turned the board into a bowl of jelly, but rather something more specific.

Instead, I'm thinking that it's the lighting.

Anyway that's what occurred to me when I was sitting there listening to the equivocations. It's dark in the District's meeting room. The members of the board sit on a dais that's been lit like a cocktail lounge.

Maybe they just sit there and get depressed, and lose their wills, because of the gloom.

The report by consultants Lou Barber & Associates analyzed the District's special education program at both the micro and the macro levels. It's fair to say that Mr. Barber and his team gave the District good marks on the details, like the quality of its written materials, but criticized it heavily on the big issues, like how the special ed administrators treat their staff and the parents of special needs children.

Consultant Barber emphasized -- going beyond his prepared remarks -- that fundamentally, before talking about specific programs, the issue was one of attitude; the District had attitude problems, and he said that they were the "paramount piece" to fix. This issue of attitude, everyone seemed to agree, started at the top, at the board, and demanded "leadership."

But when presented with this report that showed that this attitude problem was reflected in, for instance, what turns out to be the District's highly unusual practice of resorting to private settlement agreements to determine the educational services afforded to many special needs students, and which also reported that the delivery of services to these children was often characterized by fear-inducing abuse, the response from most board members was to punt to the superintendent.

Board Member Maria Leon-Vasquez: "our superintendent is really going to look into this."

Board Member Jose Escarce: "the board is looking forward to the superintendent's response."

Board Member Kelly Pye: she has "full confidence in our superintendent."

Board Member Ralph Mechur: although he agreed with Mr. Barber about the urgency of addressing the attitude issues, his substantive response was to commend the staff on its "willingness to respond quickly."

Board Member Kathy Wisnicki commendably said that these issues were "areas the board needs to take control of," but she didn't offer any motions that might reflect how the board might do that.

Only Board Member Barry Snell, who at least asked Mr. Barber a series of relevant questions, and Board President Oscar de la Torre who, as reported in The Lookout's article, actually took a stand on what the District's future policies should be, showed that they knew for what purpose they were sitting on the dais.

Can you imagine how the Santa Monica City Council would have responded if an outside consultant had delivered such a report to them about the operations of an important City program? A city manager under the city manager form of government has a lot of power independent of the city council, and our council regularly demonstrates its high regard for City Manager Lamont Ewell, but do you think that they would have waited for his response before telling him what they believed he should do?

The board members may feel like they are respecting their staff, but they are in fact doing them a disservice. Instead of advising the staff of what the board wants in the way of policies, the staff now has to devise them independently. If the board then wants something different, they have to confront the staff. It's better to tell the staff what you want.

The reason I am spending so much time on the board's non-reaction to the report is that the problems with special education in the District go way back, long before the controversy with confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements. As I write this I'm looking at another report, from 2000, written by another consultant, Frederick Weintraub, whom the District hired to study problems in the special education program.

In that report, Mr. Weintraub noted that the relationship between the Board and the District's Special Education District Advisory Committee (SEDAC) was perceived by the committee as "hostile."

Not much has changed in that regard. In 2004 the District's Director of Special Education delivered another report to the board; that led to the board calling for the development of a strategic plan for special education. Developed with a lot of involvement by parents through the SEDAC, there is still a lot of resentment among parents that the board and staff ignored the plan.

When reviewing this history and talking to people about it, two points jump out: (1) everyone marvels at how dysfunctional the situation has been here, where the District spends more money on special education than most other districts and yet our special education parents seem less happy than others, and (2) nobody can tell me just when things went bad.

I have written quite a few columns (see links below) about the special education issue and the politics that affect the relationship between the City and the District over funding. I don't believe that anyone has been right all the time (including myself). Many parents are justly aggrieved and the District appears guilty of both bad attitudes and bad policies, but there is no denying that special education presents major funding problems that the District must find a means to control.

Personally, I've at times focused on the idea (and I hope the reality) that for the majority of special needs children and their parents, the District does a good job. Mr. Barber, however, has persuaded me that one can't evaluate the success of a special ed program on the basis of averaged statistics, but rather that programs (and attitudes) had to work for everyone.

What is plain from the Barber report is that the District's policy of using a centralized system of negotiators, who resolve educational issues by private negotiation separate from the normal "individual education plan" process, has been a failure. While it may have resulted in marginal savings in legal fees, it has resulted in an overall increase in expenditures as the District has had to increase administrative staffing.

I am no expert on special education policies, but what I keep reading about and hearing from people in the know is that the only way to control costs and provide services that both satisfy parents and the law is to develop programs in-house that reflect considered choices about method.

In an interview after the meeting, consultant Barber told me that one problem with the private settlement agreements is that they work against this in-house goal, by empowering nonpublic providers of services rather than the schools. In his words, "you can't build capacity [in the District] by separating the nonpublic from the public."

I spoke to the parent of an autistic child and his experience backed that up. His son attends one of our middle schools, but he spends half the school day in a private program receiving one-on-one services, at the District's considerable expense. His son is going to move on to high school; the parent told me that he would be happy, and his son would be happy, if the District ran a program at Samohi for the half-day that his son needs for special services.

This program need not, he said, be one-on-one; it could be one-to-three, for instance, but even if it were one-on-one, if it were provided in-house, it would be less expensive for the district. But as it is, because an outside provider provides the current services, the District gains no experience from them that would help them establish an in-house program.

It's time for the Board of Education to turn up the lights and examine -- themselves -- the District's special education program.

Frank Gruber's previous columns on the 2007-08 special education and school funding controversies:

"People Who Govern in Glass Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones," May 29, 2007

"The Council and the District (Part 1)," June 4, 2007

"The Council and the District (Part 2)," June 5, 2007

"Should Mum be the Word?" June 11, 2007

"A Bigger Mess, Part 1," June 18, 2007

"A Bigger Mess, Part 2," June 19, 2007

"It's Time to Take the Pledge," Oct. 22, 2007

Meeting notice:

Tomorrow night the City Council takes up an important development issue: a proposed development agreement for an entertainment production facility at 2834 Colorado Avenue. For the staff report, see item 8-A on the agenda.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.
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