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Del Norte, CA: 18-20% of students have special needs; 'they don't have the staff'

Oct 31, 2023, Del Norte, CA, Wild Rivers Outpost: 'My Kid's Getting Screwed'; DNUSD Special Ed Students Losing Out On Education Due To Staffing Shortage

Linda Vang says her son hasn’t attended a full day of school since the year began on Sept. 5. Vang’s oldest, Andrew Deen, is a junior at Del Norte High School, has autism and is non-verbal and requires support from two behavioral intervention assistants. Andrew lost about two months of education last year following a negative encounter with a substitute for the person who normally worked with him.

This year, so far, Andrew has been dismissed as early as 11:30 a.m., though Del Norte High gets out at 3:10 p.m., Vang said. As of Oct. 19, Vang says she has been picking Andrew up at 2:15 p.m.

“At the beginning of the school year, for the first week, they had dismissed him,” Vang said.

"They didn’t have any staff for him so he missed the first day of school. He missed a week of school because they didn’t have the staff.”

Vang submitted a complaint to the California Department of Education about her son’s lost education hours. The CDE conducted an interview and completed a report stating that DNUSD shall show evidence by March 1 that it has provided 94 hours of compensatory services to Andrew.

But he isn’t the only one Del Norte Unified School District special needs student losing out on their education, Del Norte Teachers Association President Sarah Elston says.

“I have one student who is owed damn near 1,000 hours of compensatory services because she has not had the staff,” said Elston, who teaches special education at Del Norte High School. “This is the second school year.”

Superintendent Jeff Harris acknowledges that the district owes compensatory education “to every student who was not able to access their education.” As of about two weeks ago, district has had more than 110 vacant classified positions overall. About 10 to 20 of those are special education positions, Harris said.

“For the safety of the students — of themselves and other students — they were notified by the principal or their teacher that we were not able to meet their needs at school at that time,” he told the Outpost. “So they did not get the education they were required to through their IEP.”

Of the roughly 4,000 students enrolled at DNUSD schools, between 18-21 percent have IEPs. According to Elston, this is higher than the state average of between 10-20 percent….

For some students, twice-monthly check-ins with a speech or language therapist will meet the requirements of their IEPs. Others receive daily behavioral support, including speech and language therapy and possibly even specialized nursing through the DNUSD Special Education Department, Harris said.

As for funding, last year, Del Norte Unified School District received about $5.3 million in state and federal special education dollars, including preschool special education money, according to Assistant Superintendent of Business Jeff Napier. The district also received one-time federal money for special education that Napier said was tied to COVID, “but goes away.”

DNUSD spent about $11.1 million in special education last year, Napier said. About $5.78 million came from the district’s general fund, he said.

DNUSD’s overall budget is about $60 million, Harris said.

Due to the staffing shortage — which, Harris said, school districts statewide are feeling — DNUSD has had to fill those vacant positions with contracted personnel. There are currently 20 working with the school district. Harris said.

But DNUSD has reached out to every agency locally that offers contracted personnel who can work with its special needs students, Harris said. Now, the district is looking to national agencies. One of the companies it’s working with is based in Florida, he said….

The superintendent acknowledged that in the short term these contractors are paid more than district employees. But, Harris said, if you have to provide a service and you can’t find the staff, contracting out is the “right thing to do.”

“That contractor can charge that private market rate,” he said. “And I hate to use to use the name 'market' when we’re talking about kids, but they look at that when we’re developing contracts, and different levels of support cost different amounts of money.”

Even finding those contractors is difficult now, Harris said.

“We have already gone through local services and hired everyone we’re able. Now we’re working (with) state and national services trying to fill in the gaps,” he said….

According to Harris, the district is supposed to work out a plan with the parents for providing that compensatory education to their student. That could include providing services outside of school, including during the summer or beyond the end of high school, he said.

“I’ve never been in this situation where the district hasn’t been able to meet the compensatory education district they’ve had with the family,” Harris said.

Harris added that there are plenty of jobs available at DNUSD.

“We are desperately looking, and we’re hiring every week,” he said.


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