(This month’s Board Room deals with potential problem areas and questions board members should be asking administrators about special education and Section 504 services. Last month’s edition addressed basic information for school board members about these services.)
By Jennifer Wohlleb
Special education and Section 504 services and requirements are lengthy and complex, but are areas that school boards need to be familiar with, even if they have few direct responsibilities in this area.
Budgeting is one of the few areas board members oversee that affects special education, and even then their hands are mostly tied. Teresa Combs, KSBA’s director of Legal and Administrative Training Services, said districts can use federal IDEA money only to implement Individual Education Plans.
“There’s also something called local maintenance of local effort,” she said. “It says you can’t spend fewer local and state dollars on special education this year than you did last year, unless you’ve had a big infusion of federal funding like they did with ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), or unless you have certain stipulated things happen, such as a very experienced staff member leaves the district or a very expensive child leaves.”
Because of the restrictions on how funds are spent, Combs said it is important for schools to put well-trained, qualified people in charge of the Admissions and Release Committee, which makes all evaluation and placement decisions. The ARC may be composed of the child’s teacher, a special education teacher, the school’s guidance counselor, principal, parent or anyone else needed to plan the child’s special education program.
“You do not get to reduce your level of local spending, so it makes it very important that the people who chair the ARC meetings are very responsible and put in the Individualized Education Plans only what the children need for access and progress,” Combs said. “Once you put it in there, if the child doesn’t need it for progress, first, you’ve probably inappropriately spent federal grant money; second, once you give it, it’s really hard to convince a parent that a child can progress without it.”
Combs also added that districts receive no additional funds for Section 504 student services. Broadly, students identified as IDEA have educational disabilities while Section 504 students have medical disabilities or conditions.
This is one reason training of Admissions and Release Committee chairmen is so important.
“A lot of what creates problems for districts is that IEPS are not always followed,” she said. “That IEP has the force of law, and once the district says in an IEP, ‘This is what we’re going to deliver,’ if it doesn’t deliver it, it has to provide compensatory education services, for which the district will get no extra funding.”
Combs said board members should ask if the people who comprise IEP and Section 504 teams receive regular training.
“There are a lot of health issues and safety issues, as well as educational issues,” she said. “It’s a complex area that they should be looking at and asking questions about as new people come in. Are they trained? Are the people making decisions updated regularly in these legal requirements?”
Combs said discipline is one of the areas about which board members have a lot of questions. Because students have special rights once they are identified by the district as special needs, Combs said handling their discipline if they get in trouble is not straightforward.
“If the student gets in long-term disciplinary trouble, which is defined as being out of school for longer than 10 days a school year, before the board can expel that student, no matter his or her offense, it has to do a manifestation determination to see if the misconduct at issue was a manifestation of the child’s disabling condition. If it is determined the child’s misbehavior was caused because the school district staff did not appropriately implement the IEP or Section 504 services, then the law presumes it’s a manifestation of the disability and the student cannot be expelled from school.”
Combs said if they are expelled, special education students identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, must still receive all of their general curriculum and their specialized IEP services as determined by the team.
— Sessions on special education and Section 504 law are offered frequently at KSBA’s annual, winter and summer conferences. Combs also offers several training sessions a year for special education and Section 504 professionals that board members may attend.