West Marin’s largest school district saw a significant jump in the number of students with special needs during the 2013-2014 year. The percentage of special-needs students at Shoreline Unified, now over a fifth of the student body, is roughly twice last year’s state average. Although district officials offered no explanation for the rise, they are legally bound to provide additional staffing for those students—at a time when they must do everything they can to reign in spending.
At the beginning of this school year, Shoreline had 95 special-needs students, but as of March 14, that number rose to 120, according to Patricia O’Connor, the county’s special-needs coordinator for West Marin. That’s about 23 percent of Shoreline’s 509 students. Most are categorized as having mild to moderate needs, meaning that they typically have a combination of specialized instruction and general classroom time.
In the past seven years, the percentage of students living in the district with special needs has remained between 15 and 18 percent of the student body, according to state data. That is well above the state average, which was 11 percent last year, and the county average, which was 11.6 percent. The state does take a closer look at districts that fall outside average, but they didn’t do that this school year, and it’s unclear if they’ve ever done so with Shoreline.
Already the projected expenditures for the next three years are not sustainable with projected revenue, according to Susan Skipp, the chief business officer for the district. She estimated deficits of over a million dollars for the next two school years. “Since we are not able to generate sufficient revenue to sustain expenditures, the only option is to look at ways to reduce expenditures,” Ms. Skipp told the board at a budget retreat on Friday.
West Marin School Principal Matt Nagle said 21 percent of his students have special needs. “Having 20 percent or over 20 percent is a little unusual. It’s more than other districts I’ve worked in. We’re asking, ‘Why is that?’ But we don’t have answers,” he said.
Each of Shoreline’s special-needs students has an individual education plan, or I.E.P., which outlines the child’s educational struggles and which services they must be provided to help them succeed. Students can receive I.E.P.s for a number of different reasons, including speech impairments, autism, emotional disturbances, intellectual disabilities or other learning disabilities. Some students might spend part of their day out of the general classroom, while a few might be in a special needs class most of the school day.
The plans are legally binding documents, so the district is required to provide the staffing to comply with them.
Special-needs students can be identified in a number of ways, Ms. O’Connor said. “It could be parents asking for an assessment, or it could be a teacher noticing a student needing extra support. Or someone else just saying, ‘I noticed this child in the community needs extra support.’”
But Mr. Nagle said his staff is vigilant in identifying students. “We would never wait for a parent to identify an issue. We would always be proactive. We use the assessment data and what we see in classroom, and meet with parents and start that conversation,” he said.
The school always takes care not to identify English language learners as special needs, Mr. Nagle said. “You always have to rule out that possibility in the special-education process… I always ask that question: ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with the child not speaking English as a first language at home, does it?’” he said.
The school assembles a team of teachers, specialists and one or both parents to evaluate the student and determine which curriculum he or she struggles to master and why. They evaluate the child’s strengths and weaknesses. They review report cards, records of behavioral issues, classroom test scores and assignments and any other observations or problematic patterns that teachers and parents have noted.
A student might find it difficult to focus on lessons or repeatedly disrupt classes. He or she might become self-injuring when frustrated or upset, or spend long hours trying to comprehend grade-appropriate reading materials.
The team would evaluate what possible interventions or specialized instruction might help the child and develop a set of specific goals to reach by the end of the school year.
The state collects data on the number of special-needs students in every school district twice a year, according to John Lenz, the director of the Marin County Special Education Local Plan Area, which helps school districts provide services. The state’s general rule of thumb is that a school is an outlier if it falls above or below the state average by 2 percent. (They can also be considered outliers even when they fall within the average if they are above or below average in a certain demographic or type of disability.)
If schools fall too far outside the bounds of average, they could be targeted for evaluation or corrective action if the state decides they haven’t been properly evaluating students. Mr. Lenz said the state had not put any district in Marin on notice for the current school year.
Although he did not want to speculate about Shoreline, he said districts with small populations are more likely to be outliers. He also said sudden rises can happen. But, he added, increases might warrant taking a close look at the evaluation process. “When that happens a ‘Hmm’ can come up. You might say, ‘We better take another look at that…and make sure practices are best practices for identifying students [with needs].’ You want to make sure you’re exhausting general education resources before you’re evaluating and making sure your evaluation is comprehensive.”
For the coming school year, additional staffing at Shoreline remains uncertain. The increase necessitates at least one more full-time teacher and a part-time aide position. The teacher will cost about $85,000 in salary and benefits. The district is looking into staffing the aide position by shuffling current employees; otherwise that position would cost $40,000. But it is unclear if that will work and they might need to hire even more staff. At the district’s recent budget retreat, Ms. Skipp admitted it was possible they would need up to three extra full time faculty.
Staffing requirements because there is no blanket student-to-teacher ratio, Ms. O’Connor said. Instead, the type of disability and the needs outlined for those 120 students in their I.E.P.s. determine staffing. “Special education is very personalized,” she said.
The school receives some state and federal funding specifically for special education, Ms. Skipp said, “But it doesn’t anywhere come close to covering the cost of the program.”
The district’s required staffing increases in special education mean that other hopes expressed by parents might not be in the offing. Parents have been lobbying the school board for a full-time music teacher at West Marin School, with sixth-grade teacher David Whitney discussing the numerous neurological benefits music education offers at a recent meeting.
“I can say for the board we like to say yes to exciting programs,” school board President Jane Healy said. “In the community, if it looks like we’re saying no, it’s not because we don’t want it. There are budgetary constraints.”
Ms. O’Connor emphasized the importance of serving students who need extra resources to succeed. “People with special needs are part of our community and part of our world. And we give them what they need, and we give other students what they need. That child is entitled to an appropriate education, as well as one without special needs.”