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Alternate Realities?

By Frank Gruber

November 18 -- If there are Santa Monicans wondering if the fabric of the community can be mended in the aftermath of the various tears inflicted by the promotion of, campaign against, and eventual defeat of Measure T, the Residents Initiative to Fight Traffic, this column will provide reassurance.

For I can report that at approximately 9:10 in the morning of Saturday, November 15, 2008, at John Adams Middle School, Tim Cuneo, the current (interim) Superintendent of the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District, called special education activist Tricia Crane up to stand before a group of one hundred or so parents and others interested in the District's special education policies.

The purpose was to honor her.

To recognize Ms. Crane's contributions to the District's special education programs, Mr. Cuneo gave her the first copy received from the printer of the District's new Special Education Parent Handbook, a handbook special education parents had spent many years drafting, and a handbook that many of them believed the District, under prior management, had tried to ignore to death.

It was as if, as Ms. Crane put it, she was in an "alternate reality." To top it off, Ms. Crane then thanked Mr. Cuneo and said in return, on behalf of special education parents, that Mr. Cuneo should "know how much we appreciate your guidance."

To comprehend how startling this rapprochement was, recall that Ms. Crane has been the most persistent and insistent critic of the District's special education program. It was she who led the movement two years ago that resulted in the Santa Monica City Council withholding more than half a million dollars from the District.

Ms. Crane has for years criticized the District's special education staff, but on Saturday she described as "extraordinary" and "brave" staffer Sally Chou, who had shepherded the special education handbook to completion.

Saturday's seismic events occurred at a "Special Education Fall Forum" organized by the Santa Monica-Malibu PTA Council's Special Education Committee, the District's special education department, and the Special Education District Advisory Committee (SEDAC), which has been the voice for special education parents.

The slogan for the forum was "Creating Unity through Collaboration," and the theme could hardly have been more fitting, since the combination of the PTA, the District, and SEDAC was itself a landmark in collaboration.

The events of the past two years are worth analyzing because they say a lot about local politics.

To begin with, two years ago Ms. Crane and her cohorts found an opening to make their argument about special education because of two developments that had unexpected consequences.

One was that education activists had in 2004 pressured the City Council to agree to provide by contract major funding for the District, some of which was discretionary. This was considered a great victory for the education community.

The other development was that in the fall of 2006 the District ran into embarrassing budgeting problems -- the problems that resulted in the resignation of the District's CFO, Winston Braham.

Combined, these two developments resulted in scrutiny by the council of the District's affairs, and Ms. Crane seized the moment to take her complaints about the District's staff to elected officials other than the School Board -- a board that had consistently supported Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker, who had organized and who ran the special education program.

With the council providing a forum for the special education parents, the District responded ineptly, and ultimately the council came down hard, demanding from the District not only specific changes to policies but also an outside evaluation of the special education program.

Supporters of the School Board and the District were offended, if not outraged.

But the audit, by Lou Barber, when completed last spring, was a watershed. It validated the complaints by special education parents, and the departures of both the Superintendent of the District, Dianne Talarico, and Mr. Walker followed.

These departures were not, however, the most remarkable political change that the Barber report generated. The most important change was that of the education community itself; it adopted special education reform as an issue.

At the forum on Saturday it was significant that aside from Superintendent Cuneo, the most prominent hosts were from the PTA Council: Rebecca Kennerly, the President of the District-wide PTA, and Judith Meister, Chair of the PTA Council's Special Education Committee.

It was as if the PTA, speaking for the entire political support system for the school district, was saying to the special education parents, "don't worry, you're not alone any more."

I date the shift back to a School Board meeting in April after the Barber report was presented to the board, when Ms. Kennerly responded with a address to the board (LETTERS -- "Troubling Words, " April 21, 2008) that was an eloquent statement on behalf of the PTA telling the special education parents, "now we get it."

These politics are worth studying because in effect all the acrimony and hardball politics at the City Council, important as they were in pushing the School Board to take action, wouldn't mean anything if they had not ultimately resulted in a "buy-in" by the larger community of those interested in education. Without that buy-in, we would be fighting this battle on and on.

Santa Monica has had at least ten years of acrimony about special education, and I am certainly not brave enough to predict that the latest staff changes and the new attitudes as exhibited at Saturday's forum will result in long term positive change. But the District is moving forward. It has empowered a new committee -- the "Special Education Collaborative" -- consisting of both staff and parents that will report back in February with recommendations for program changes.

The District has also found, also by way of PTA action, a district in Contra Costa County, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, that itself had gone through a decade of strife over special education, but which over the past three years has made great progress in improving its program.

The principal speaker at Saturday's forum was Todd Gary, the San Ramon Valley district's "Special Needs Liaison," who gave an insightful presentation about how to use a collaborative approach to improve both the relationships between staff and parents and the actual quality and cost-effectiveness of a special education program. Presumably our district can learn from the San Ramon Valley district's experiences.

There is at least one other reason to be optimistic, which is the attitude expressed by Superintendent Cuneo. Because the School Board hired Mr. Cuneo only a few months ago as an interim superintendent to replace Ms. Talarico until a permanent replacement is found, my expectation was that little would happen on the special education front until the District had hired a permanent superintendent.

But Mr. Cuneo has put the pedal to the metal. I was impressed Saturday by his attitude. While he has only been here a few months, he used the pronoun "we" to describe the history of the District's special education troubles as if he had been running things for ten years.

It was refreshing to hear someone grab responsibility rather than avoid it.

One last note in the form of a memo to City Council: What are you waiting for? Give the District the money that you've held back for 18 months. Progress has been made. If there is backsliding, in May you can vote to withhold next year's money.

Show some goodwill.








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