At a recent meeting of the Pinellas County School Board, Lisa Grant sat down to give a presentation on the education of students with disabilities.
Grant, the district's new director of exceptional student education, did not have good news. The graduation rate for these students is 10 percentage points below the state average. Most every other large district fared better.
"In almost every area, we are sixth, seventh or fifth," Grant told the board. "In almost no area are we first, second or third."
For the next 20 minutes, she outlined a three-pronged plan to make Pinellas' ESE program, as it is called, "the top-functioning ESE program in the state." The district would address staffing, the curriculum and the instructional practices of its teachers.
But as the School Board applauded the plan to improve the education of students with special needs, district officials kept a key element of the changes from public view: Pinellas plans to cut hundreds of ESE positions.
A Tampa Bay Times analysis of school staffing documents indicates that the district is slated to cut 296 positions that support students with special needs.
Most of these ESE associate positions support the district's youngest students — those in prekindergarten — and are placed throughout the county.
These staffing projections have not been discussed in public meetings, have not been posted on the school system's website, and were not included in Grant's presentation. Five requests were submitted before staff provided these documents to the Times.
In an interview, Grant said she expected to add positions back on a case-by-case basis. Still, she estimated that Pinellas would lose as many as 200 associate positions next year.
These associates provide instructional support for students with disabilities, sometimes working with them as personal assistants in general education classrooms.
District officials say they are being strategic about their resources as they combine programs spread among schools, and focus on more streamlined instruction and teacher training throughout the district.
The district may decide not to make certain cuts if a student's disabilities warrant more adults in the room, Grant said. When asked about the elimination of these positions, she said, "More isn't always better."
"I'm not saying there isn't a time and place . . . but we can't rely on more people as a solution to improve student achievement," Grant said.
The district is adding about 35 ESE teaching positions as it eliminates the nearly 300 associate positions. "The most important factor is the quality of the teacher in the classroom," Grant said. "It's the actual instruction. We're going to be very intentional and very strategic."
Superintendent Mike Grego cut about 100 associate positions last year, explaining that Pinellas outspent other districts that were showing better results in special education.
The district spent from 8 to 38 percent more than similar districts for special education services, adding up to about $64 million more spent on services than what Pinellas takes in.
Grego explained that the district had been grouping students by disability rather than severity, and staffing classrooms based on the most intensive needs. The cuts, as well as other changes, saved about $6.5 million.
Melanie Marquez Parra, a spokeswoman for the district, said in emails that this year positions will be reduced through attrition or by eliminating open positions. ESE associate assignments will be made up until the start of the school year and continue through the school year "as student need arises."
Some groups of special education students will be moved to other schools so they can receive more services in one place, and have access to more classes based on their abilities, Parra said.
She acknowledged that the ratio of associates to students will go down in some classes as Pinellas changes its staffing model.
Students in middle and high schools with special needs are classified as mild, moderate or intensive. Under the new model, classrooms with moderate and intensive students will have one associate instead of two.
In prekindergarten classrooms, the new model cuts out ESE associates. Currently, each pre-K class has a teacher, an ESE associate, and a child development associate. The CDA, according to a district job description, also "performs instructional duties as a member of a team" and "collaborates in curriculum, planning and implementation" under the teacher's direction.
School Board member Linda Lerner said she and her colleagues were briefed on the changes prior to Tuesday's meeting.
"I hope and I know the district will fully explain it to staff," she said.
Chairwoman Carol Cook said the district could stand to lose a large number of ESE positions.
"I think in some cases we had more adults than we needed working with the students," Cook said. "When you have a group of four students and you have three adults in the room, we don't need that many adults."
But many parents say they are concerned and confused about the elimination of ESE positions.
Paula Keyser, whose son receives special-education services at Largo Middle School, said there was no mention of eliminating positions at the latest meeting of the district's ESE advisory committee. "They were very, very vague," Keyser said.
Keyser said she's been told that the associate who works with her son while he's in general education classes won't be going anywhere. But when that associate goes on breaks, others usually jump in to help her son, who has epilepsy.
"It has to be someone who's trained for that, and I worry there's going to be an impact for all students, because associates are resources for the school," she said.
Judy Owen also worried about having fewer associates. Her son, a fourth-grader at Sexton Elementary, has Down syndrome.
"A lot of the kids with disabilities have a problem with attention span and being very easily distracted," Owen said. "The aides in the classroom are very important for keeping kids on task."
Contact Lisa Gartner at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.