Palo Alto school board members, staff and parents were largely heartened Tuesday by a district plan to allocate $2.4 million over the next two years to improve special-education services, with trustees requesting more details before they take action on the budget requests.
The funding proposals — which are mostly for additional personnel to strengthen support for teachers and, in turn, students at school sites — follow the results of an internal review of special education, including surveys of parents, teachers and staff.
This was not the first review of special education in Palo Alto Unified, where progress on comprehensive reform in this area has often been stymied.
"The CAC (Community Advisory Committee) at large has asked for accountability and transparency for a decade," Christina Schmidt, a member of the special education parent-advocacy group, told the board Tuesday. "Now that we have this data ... we can actually tackle the relevant issues and improve outcomes.
"Public accountability and compliance starts now," Schmidt said.
Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Initiatives Yolanda Conaway said the funding requests are necessary to bring the special-education program into legal compliance and reduce litigation with families. The need for teacher training was emphasized by all, including the parent-advocates.
"There is no capacity in (the) current system for improvement and compliance," said CAC Chair Kimberly Eng Lee. "It takes training and a mind shift for all educators to include and instruct all kids."
Staff have proposed creating a "learning academy" that would provide targeted professional development for special- and general-education teachers as well as administrators.
Parents pressed for a specific timeline with action items and corrective measures that can be carefully monitored.
Board members also asked Conaway to return with more specifics, including explanations for the amounts of funding requested, a plan for what to roll out first and the areas in which the district is out of compliance in special education.
Board member Todd Collins urged an intentional, phased rollout that would start with a small group of schools to avoid another failed attempt at special-education reform.
"The greatest enemy of most new initiatives and certainly in education are rollouts that are faster than the management infrastructure available to support them," he said. "Part of doing it right is probably doing it slow."
In response, Conaway stressed that there is a structure missing in the district that must be built, sooner rather than later.
"Time is critical," echoed Katie Talbot, a parent of a child with special needs. "Please don't delay on this because every year that you delay is a year my child gets older and loses a year of education."
The school board will next discuss the special-education requests at a budget study session in the coming weeks.