An evaluation commissioned by the district found systemic flaws in BUSD’s special education programs. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
An evaluation commissioned by the district found systemic flaws in BUSD’s special education programs. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

An independent evaluation of Berkeley Unified’s special education program found “an incoherent special education system replete with fiscal inefficiencies and poor communications.”

The district commissioned the assessment, by William Gillaspie of Educational Strategic Planning, in September, hoping to gain insight into how to better operate special-education services amid rising costs for such programs across the state and within BUSD. Gillaspie presented some of his findings at the School Board meeting Wednesday, and in a summary of a draft report.

At the meeting, Gillaspie, who has evaluated dozens of districts, schools and special-education systems, said BUSD has a “very unique mainstreaming effort…and it’s a wonderful delivery system, a wonderful thought.” The district follows a “full inclusion” model, meaning students with special needs still attend the general education classes, often with assistance from an instructional aide.

Gillaspie commended the district’s special-education program director, Lisa Graham, describing her as a “very effective director of special ed, very passionate, very knowledgeable.”

But the praise ended there, as Gillaspie proceeded to run through what he described as failings in professional development, fiscal management and communication between the district office and schools, and with parents.

While the full inclusion model is admirable in theory, it is not effectively implemented or communicated to those tasked with carrying it out, the evaluation found.

“No effective policies or procedures were developed to guide the overall special education delivery system,” according to the summary report. “Principals indicated the Special Education Department does not provide a vision or clarity on how full inclusion functions or how to implement it.”

Graham, the report says, was “previously an effective program specialist,” but she inherited the incoherent system without sufficient training on critical budget issues. Graham did not immediately respond to a request for a comment. She is moving out of state and thus leaving BUSD at the end of the school year, according to the district.

Because there is not strong oversight, each school provides special education differently, Gillaspie said at the meeting.

He also criticized what he described as the “over-identification” of students with special needs. According to the report and presentation, BUSD serves more than the “industry standard” of 10% of the student body in its special education program, leading to 136 students more than are expected to be classified as requiring special education. According to the consultant, over-identification and the focus on mainstreaming students have contributed to BUSD’s outsize spending on special education.

“Your cost per child is very expensive, probably one of the highest I’ve seen in California… because of the full inclusion model,” he said.

William Gillaspie of Educational Strategic Planning, presented the findings of a BUSD special-education evaluation at the School Board meeting Dec. 6. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

About 66% of the district’s special-education spending, or somewhere in the ballpark of $16 million, came from the general fund in 2017-18, compared to a state average of 51%, according to the Educational Strategic Planning report. According to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, about 40% of special education costs in California are typically covered by state and federal funds.

That funding is distributed to districts and other educational entities based on general enrollment, not the number of students with special needs. The distribution model is intended to discourage over-identification, and has been criticized by some for creating an unequal system, as some districts serve much larger special education populations than others.

“This is all fixable,” Gillaspie told the School Board during his presentation.

He recommended a stronger early intervention program and resources to avoid later special-education classification when possible.

The consultant said more training — both for instructional aides and for the general education teachers — is sorely needed.

“We’re putting kids in regular classrooms with very little assistance to the teachers,” Gillaspie said. “Instructional aides are being hired without training, without support.” A shortage in staff interested in those positions has also led the district to rely on outside private agencies, which is costly, the evaluation found.

The summary report also said some staff caseloads are smaller than in other districts. It recommends reducing the current hours or number of school psychologists — currently around the equivalent of 15 full-time employees, or 7.6 more employees than the statewide average ratio — though Gillaspie acknowledged they serve important roles. To cut additional costs, the report recommends increasing the array of services provided at schools — though it is already compliant with state and federal requirements — to decrease expensive out-of-district school placements, which often come with high transportation costs. According to the report, about 28% of BUSD special education students receive transportation services, compared to 10% of students at other districts studied by the consultancy, which may be due to issues during the needs assessment process, Gillaspie said.

The evaluator also found that parental dissatisfaction and mistrust of the special-education program, and the related litigation level, is high.

“A spirit of trust and respect needs to be developed to allow parents to feel engaged in their child’s education without the threat of due process,” the report says. The consultancy recommended the creation of a parent advisory committee.

Asked by the board how BUSD’s special-education legal fees compare to those of other district Gillaspie has evaluated, the consultant said, “it’s much higher.”

The most publicized legal case in the past year was an ongoing class-action suit alleging the district has not provided required accommodations for students with dyslexia and other reading disorders.

Board member: “We’ve got cost issues, but we’ve also got service issues.”

In a statement sent to Berkeleyside Friday, BUSD spokesman Charles Burress said the district is still awaiting the full report from Educational Strategic Planning, but values the review of its services.

“The district welcomes well-informed assessments of its programs, including special education, as we continually seek to improve our ability to meet our students’ needs,” said the statement. “We will be giving the findings our full and prompt attention with the goal of achieving greater insight into the most effective use of our resources and adopting whatever changes may be appropriate in serving our students.”

Following Gillaspie’s presentation, board members said they appreciated the candid and instructive report, thanking Gillaspie for not glossing over the inadequacies.

“One of the biggest budgetary challenges we face is connected to the increasing costs of our special-ed budget,” said Josh Daniels, board president. “The recommendations you have are very helpful for us, and our intent is to move forward on engaging with you.”

Board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said she is particularly interested in further examining how African-American students are disproportionately represented in BUSD special education, and whether that contributes to the over-identification, if they have not been provided with intervention services first.

Some on the dais thanked Gillaspie for coming up with comprehensive recommendations addressing not only the financial efficiency of the special education, but the effectiveness of the services as well.

“That’s one of the priorities I have for myself this year, really looking at a plan to how we can be more aligned to our vision and what we’re trying to do,” said Superintendent Donald Evans. “When we look at special ed, I know we talk about the containment piece, but I also don’t want to dismiss the fact that we are also looking at how we can be a better service to our students who are accessing this service.”

“We’ve got cost issues, but we’ve also got service issues,” said board member Ty Alper. “What I appreciate about this report is it really does talk about both.” He noted that the recommendation to address over-identification of students is “appropriately coupled” with the direction to boost parental engagement and feedback. As is, many parents think the district is under-identifying special needs and ignoring complaints.

Alper said parents have long told district that full-inclusion important but that it fails if general education teachers do not thoroughly understand how the students fit into their classroom or how to support them, which the evaluation confirmed.

Board member Karen Hemphill said a parental advisory group is “long, long, long overdue.” She said she is eager to launch a task force including parents as well as staff, to create a district action plan, as recommended by the consultancy.

Parent: Look at the program in a broader context

During public comment after the presentation, Vicki Davis, a parent of a special-education student at Malcolm X, said the summary report does not put BUSD’s program and costs in the appropriate context. While BUSD might spend more on special education than other California districts, California spends less on special education than most other states, she said.

California also classifies a smaller percentage of its students as special needs than most other states, according to the US Department of Education, The summary report does not clarify whether the 136-student over-identification figure is based on the state or national average.

Davis also noted that the summary does not compare BUSD’s program to other full-inclusion programs, “which are notoriously two to three times more expensive.”

Paula Phillips, president of the classified staff union, said during public comment that she has been sounding the professional development bell for years.

“The district has become dependent on unskilled, unqualified, limited-term employees,” she said. “What I’ve been told over the years is we don’t have to hire skilled aides.”

Pasquale Scuderi, assistant superintendent, said at the meeting that the next steps will require “a reorganization and rethinking of how we prioritize our professional development time.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...