Special education ‘crisis’ looms 

A shortage of special education aides has gripped the county’s special education programs in recent weeks, as the county Office of Education faces another year of cutbacks.

As many as 15 vacant positions went unfilled at one point, forcing the district to pull aides from classes comprised of the less severely disabled to handle those who require feeding tubes, diaper changing or exhibit aggressive behavior, according to Carol Harriman, senior special education administrator for the county Office of Education.

County Superintendent Jean Holbrook characterized the shortage as a "crisis," but said additional substitutes have recently been added to the county’s call list following aggressive recruiting.

"In the worst case scenarios, there was a vacant para-educator [or special education aide] position and no substitute to put into that position," Harriman told The Examiner.

Several factors have caused the shortage. Absenteeism of about 30 percent has plagued full-time para-educators this school year, but it was a lack of active substitutes that was the immediate cause of the 15 vacancies that occurred in late October through early November, said Tina Dress, co-president of the San Mateo Teachers Association.

"Many of the para-educators have two jobs, so we haven’t been able to have a full load," Dress said.

The county has about 260 full-time para-educators, assigned to help teachers manage the county’s disabled students, according to Glenn Siegel, human resources director for the county Office of Education. There are about 55 to 60 active substitutes any one time, Siegel said.

Since the crisis, the county has added about 19 new substitutes to its call list, closing the gap, Siegel said. Union leaders, however, say there are still some shortages.

Job insecurity is compounding the problem, Dress said. Many teachers and aides are tired of weathering downsizing in the special education program, which has gone from 105 classes in 2004-05 to 83 in 2006-07, said Janice Pellizzari, co-president of the San Mateo Teachers Association.

Last year, the county Office of Education slashed about 25 special education positions. Another 27 staff were laid off in 2005, according to officials.

The cuts are making new recruits harder to come by, Pellizzari said.

"Some teachers are concerned the county is getting out of the business of special education," Dress said. The Office of Education, however, says that isn’t the case.

The layoffs come after new state funding formulas issued last year prompted more local districts to start providing more special education classes themselves rather than contract with the county in hopes of saving money, officials said.

The result is that more and more county administrators and staff are being pulled away from the Office of Education, Dress said.

In some cases the strategy of shifting special education resources to local districts to save money appears to be working, but not in all.

"It’s looking like it may be more of a wash," said John Thompson, assistant superintendent of personnel services for the South San Francisco Unified School District. His district took back one special education class from the county in the current year, and plans to take more back in the year ahead.


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