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School Board Grants Deasy's Unusual $153,000 Request

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

November 19 – In a surprise move that took parents aback, the School Board Thursday granted Superintendent John Deasy’s unusual request to create on the spot a $153,000 position for a special education head.

The 5 to 2 vote gives Deasy the authority to hire an Assistant Superintendent of Special Education to carry out a parent-written plan to reform the district's substandard special education program.

The board, however, did not decide where the money would come from to fund the position, which was not part of the parents’ plan.

The board's decision to move on the proposal was a departure from normal procedure. Unless there is an emergency, the board always holds a public hearing on an important item before taking action at a subsequent meeting.

Deasy's written recommendation to the board, which appeared as an action item on the agenda with no prior public hearing, stated that the creation of the position was "necessary" and "appropriate," but made no mention of urgency.

When pressed by Board Member Mike Jordan to explain why he was asking the board to take the unusual step of voting without holding a discussion first, Deasy said he believed he needed a new administrator immediately to take control of the $3.5 million special education budget.

"Your budget is bleeding uncontrollably in terms of special ed, and we need to stem that as soon as possible," Deasy said. "There are fiscal issues that need to be addressed right away, and it needs a certain level of expertise."

He added that the hiring process would "probably not happen as quickly" as people might expect, but he felt he needed the board's approval immediately.

Parents who were directed by the district last winter to write a plan to bring special education up to government standards worried that there was no prior discussion.

They noted that hiring a new assistant superintendent was not part of their plan, which the board accepted in June, and said they had no idea that hundreds of thousands of dollars were available.

"My first reaction was, 'Huh?'" parent Chris Chandler said. "Was this in the strategic plan? No. Was this in the staff reaction to the strategic plan? No. Did someone find a pot of gold somewhere?"

Deasy said there was no new money. The budget will have to be trimmed elsewhere -- the board did not decide where -- to create funding for the position, which was eliminated from the district a few years ago because there was not enough money for its salary.

"We're going to have to trim other areas of the budget to bring this," Deasy said, "and if we don't do that, we're going to face a growing deficit in this area, and I'm not going to bring you a growing deficit in this area."

Members of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, created to advise the district on special education issues, said they had not been consulted or notified that new funds might be available.

"We think our input on how to best use these funds is valuable, as is the input of other teachers, educators and community members," said committee member Clara Sturak.

The parents' concerns come on the heels of a controversy over last year's budget process. Several parents complained last spring that the board approved its annual budget after only a few public hearings that occurred very late at night, and school board members said during recent re-election campaigns that they were committed to a more transparent process.

Although five of the seven board members ultimately voted to create the position, the majority voiced concern about the lack of community input and specific information -- noting, for example, that Deasy's proposal did not include a dollar figure saying how much the position would cost.

Chief Financial Officer Winston Braham cited the $153,000 annual estimate, which includes salary and benefits, only after being asked twice by Board Member Maria Leon-Vazquez to estimate a specific figure.

Leon-Vazquez cast the lone vote against creating the position, saying that she had always supported special education but wanted to wait until the board's next meeting, in three weeks, to make a final decision.

"I want to at least see what we're talking about in terms of money, not just for this position, but for the support to really get this off the ground," said Leon-Vazquez, who noted that the person who filled the position in the past did his job with a team of staff members helping him.

Board Member Oscar de le Torre abstained from the vote, saying, "It seems to me that we were on a process of dialogue and response, and I don't question the superintendent's leadership, but I do question the process.

“I think the path that we were on with the DAC (District Advisory Committee) and getting their input was the right path, so it's hard for me to support this," he said.

The other five board members voted to create the position, but expressed varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Board Member Emily Bloomfield said she felt comfortable authorizing the position, because the current staff was already working beyond its capacity.

"It's really hard to understand how we're going to drive this larger process when everybody's maxed out," Bloomfield said.

Board Member Julia Brownley, too, expressed full support for immediate action.

"At the end of the day, my decision is not going to change,” Brownley said. “I'm not going to vote any differently in three weeks, and I feel like there's a sense of urgency about this."

Board Member Jordan, on the other hand, cast his vote with shakier convictions.

It was Jordan's last meeting as a board member because he did not run for re-election, and he said he felt "awkward" about his options -- casting a final vote against a program he has strongly supported or going forward with little community input.

"While I oppose this on procedural grounds," Jordan said, "and I believe that it's probably wrong, given that choice, I'm going to support this."
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