Trustees finally make special ed cuts | January 29, 2010 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - January 29, 2010

Trustees finally make special ed cuts

Vote by Mountain View Whisman board reduces hours for 10 employees

by Kelsey Mesher

After two months of union negotiations, trustees of the Mountain View Whisman School District last week voted 3-2 to reduce the hours of 10 full-time instructional assistants in the district's autism program.

The vote, made during the board's regular meeting late Thursday evening, effectively reduced nine of the full-time employees from eight hours per day to six-and-a-half hours per day, and one from eight to seven hours per day, due to "lack of work." The cuts will go into effect March 31, though the instructional assistants will keep their current benefit package through the end of the school year.

The proposal first appeared on a Nov. 19 board agenda, but was pulled from two meeting agendas because of ongoing negotiations to "mitigate impact." The original proposal called for cuts to 11 individuals, and would have reduced all aides' hours to six per day and adjusted benefits to 75 percent. Administrators said at the time that a change in the special education program eliminated the need for aides after school hours.

Though the California School Employees Association, the union representing the aides, had agreed to the proposed cuts, some trustees pushed to maintain their hours until the end of the school year.

"I don't feel the savings here are significant," said trustee Phil Palmer, referring to the $20,000 the cuts will save the district. "With these sorts of dedicated, caring adults, we should find a way to have them be with our kids."

"I'm wondering if it would be more palatable for everyone if we ... gave everyone notice that with the new school year we would implement these hours," said trustee Ellen Wheeler, the other trustee who, along with Palmer, voted against the cuts.

Assistant Superintendent Stephanie Totter maintained her recommendation to reduce the hours, emphasizing a lack of needed work, and reiterating that the union had agreed to the proposal.

"We together verified that there was a lack of work," she said, adding that in negotiations they examined each individual's schedule one by one.

"CSEA has agreed that this is an appropriate reduction," agreed trustee Fiona Walter at the meeting, after empathizing with the affected employees.

Chris Pederson, a labor relations representative for the union, told the Voice that "It's a done deal, there's no more conflict. We'll continue to monitor if these people's hours return."

"From the union perspective," he explained, "the district has the right under the law to designate the need for services in hours and the number of people that they need for those services. If they don't need the services anymore, we have the right to negotiate the impact on the affected employees."

A lengthy discussion before Thursday's vote included input from Steve Gingras, the district's director of special education, as well as comments from a parent and two aides. One of those aides, Melanie Gray, who has worked in the district for 10 years, said after the meeting that she would probably be leaving Mountain View Whisman due to the cuts.

New PTA forming

The cuts come at a time when parents are expressing frustration with larger changes in special ed services in the district. Some are mobilizing to form a Special Education PTA, or SEPTA, to support special ed students in the district.

Nan Recker, who has one special needs child in middle school, is heading up the organizational efforts.

"I've wanted to do this for quite some time," she said, "but it seems like now is the time to do it because now we have a lot more parent interest."

She said a group of six parents has already met once. The SEPTA will focus on better communication between parents and the district, helping to coordinate after-school activities, play groups, support groups for parents and education for parents and teachers.

"We're kind of copying what they're doing over in Los Altos" where parents have had a SEPTA for three years, she said.

Los Altos SEPTA president Gita Gopal said the group was set up as a forum for people to talk about how to improve services. They have done fundraising, as well as organized special events, like a talent show, for special needs students, she said.

Gopal said most recently the SEPTA has formed a special ed leadership committee, a group of parents, administrators, therapists and school psychologists to talk about issues like "mainstreaming" special needs students, and how to improve science and social studies education.

"The idea is to ease the burden on the school district," Recker said. "If there are things we can do outside of school hours to help our kids ... and get it paid for with PTA money, then it wouldn't put such a huge burden on the district."

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