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Mendocino, CA: Grand jury finds district failed to provide required SPED services

Nov 18, 2022, Mendocino Voice: Mendocino Unified disputes Grand Jury findings that district failed to properly identify, provide Special Ed services

MENDOCINO, CA Kylie Felicich had been trying to get her son — who had an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, for speech at Mendocino Unified School District’s K-8 school — assessed for special education services in math for years before administrators conducted an assessment, she told The Mendocino Voice this summer. Felicich said her daughter could not read, write, or spell in kindergarten or first grade, but administrators maintained that she simply needed “a longer runway.” After their experiences trying to get necessary Special Education services, Felicich’s family would eventually leave the district for good — and they are not the only ones.

Felicich said one teacher told her that she could “get in trouble” for advising that Felicich pursue Special Education services due to her son’s struggles in math. She’d hear the same thing from another teacher a couple of years later. …

A year later, by an independent party, Felicich’s son would be diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Parent-reported experiences like Felicich’s prompted a report from the Mendocino County Civil Grand Jury this summer, which — among other findings regarding Mendocino Unified’s Special Education program — found that the district’s failure to provide Special Education services mandated by IEP agreements to several students led families to file due process complaints. Then, the Grand Jury found, Mendocino Unified settled these legal disputes with funds set aside for extraordinary legal expenses in the Mendocino County Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) budget. SELPA’s budget consists of pooled special education funding from districts around the county; so when Mendocino Unified settles a lawsuit, any attorney fees paid by the district are reimbursed from SELPA funds, in the Grand Jury’s words “hold[ing] the district financially harmless.”

The Grand Jury found that SELPA has reimbursed $94,190 in attorney fees to Ukiah Unified School District, Mendocino Unified School District, and the Mendocino County Office of Education from fall of 2020 to spring of 2022, with $26,750 of those funds going to Mendocino Unified.

“Families never received cash settlements,” the Grand Jury reported, “ — they finally received the mandated educational services they should have received via the IEP agreement.”

The specifics of Felicich’s arrangement can’t be discussed due to documents she signed when settling her complaint against Mendocino Unified, but as she told The Voice, “It would be very challenging for Joe and Sally Smith to get the district to cover the costs for an Independent [Educational] Evaluation (IEE) without a lawyer, even though there are some cases where the school district is obligated to give that student an IEE.”…

The Grand Jury interviewed the Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools, staff from the Mendocino County Office of Education, the Superintendent and the K-8 Principal of Mendocino Unified, school district and MCOE business managers, the Executive Director of SELPA, members of the MUSD school board, parents of MUSD students with IEPs, and legal counsel. Jurors also reviewed budgets, legislation, the California School Accounting Manual, the California Department of Education Special Education Governance and Accountability Study, information from the SELPA Administrators of California, and the MUSD Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

In its response, the board expressed concern that the Grand Jury did not utilize subpoena power to review due process complaints, settlement agreements, the IEPs themselves, or California Department of Education compliance data. The board provided examples of several of these documents in its response….

Several former district parents, though, attended the October meeting to share stories of their struggles receiving services. …

Sasha Graham said her teenage son went to Mendocino K-8 for his elementary and middle school, where he struggled to get evaluated for an IEP despite ongoing behavioral struggles that impacted his learning….

“There’s been a shift in attitude from the responding agencies that have figured out that the Grand Jury is really not their enemy, that we are really trying to help,” Wylie said. “So even when an agency says, ‘You’re all wet, you got everything wrong,’ then when we go back and actually look, we actually weren’t all wet, and they adopted our recommendations.”

The board said in its response to the report that it plans to request that SELPA implement two informational nights in the 2022-23 school year, to outline parental rights and what supports are available to families in the district. At the October meeting, board members and Superintendent Morse expressed a desire to hear more from families about the apparent dissonance between the services they hope to provide and the experiences reported by some special education students and their parents.

“I’m hearing [board member] Mark [Morton] talk about the report and talk about the history of special education and how it came to be up to the present day,” said Jessica Grinberg, one of Mendocino Unified’s board members. “But I feel that we rise above the history. I feel that we need to be more in tune with families, we need to look at every student, and certainly students with IEPs need to be celebrated with compassion for the opportunity we have to educate them and help them work through their struggles. I think we do have amazing staff … and I’m not going to criticize anybody in this process, but I think there’s a miss. I think that we’re not in tune to the families in need.”

Morse is focused on improving Mendocino Unified’s existing programs — including bolstering the board’s knowledge of special education processes.

“That’s going to be the focus of our January 5 workshop, as we’ve already determined, training for the board and just also, what does an IEP look like? How does it happen?” he said at the meeting. “Our staff comes and goes, and we have a lot of transition. I feel like our staff last year and this year are, in my 11 years as superintendent, the best Special Ed staff we’ve had … Our numbers are on par with other districts our size, as far as number of assessments. So we are assessing kids at a very huge rate right now. One thing we can do is to keep trying to improve.”

The Mendocino County Civil Grand Jury published a report on Mendocino Unified School District this summer. (Kate Fishman/The Mendocino Voice)


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