The Pinellas County School District is about to embark on significant changes in how it assigns and allocates resources for students with disabilities. But the individuals who will be affected the most — the students and their families — were left largely in the dark until recently, needlessly sowing distrust. Change is never easy, but it is even harder when the case is not made adequately in the open. Superintendent Michael Grego and the School Board need to be more forthcoming with the public when it rolls out major changes to existing programs.
The changes the school district is undertaking may be entirely appropriate. Pinellas County ranks low among the state's seven major districts in how ESE students perform on the FCAT and whether they persevere to graduation. That is particularly disappointing since the district for years has been spending significantly more per pupil on average than the statewide average.
But rather than frankly discussing the shortcomings, explaining the proposed changes in public and seeking support in advance from the families most affected, Grego had his team quietly craft an overhaul largely in secret. It was revealed publicly for the first time last week at a School Board workshop. And even then, the district staff buried the biggest impact. Only after repeated questioning from the Tampa Bay Times' Lisa Gartner was it clear the plan will affect 200 jobs of teaching assistants — though it is still unclear how many, if any, employees would lose their jobs or be reassigned. Individual families have no clarity about what this could mean for their special needs children starting in 2014-15.
Grego and his staff promise that no child will lose the help they need. They say the goal is to hire more full-time specialists to work with students and rely less on assistants, many of whom are part-time. School Board member Robin Wikle, a former ESE teacher, is convinced the plan makes sense as it is often too easy for classrooms to become over- or understaffed because schools don't always respond to the ebb-and-flow of students and types of disabilities present in each class. But Wikle and other board members apparently have had the benefit of private individual briefings over the past few months. That might be the way to ease concerns of board members, but it circumvents the open meetings requirements and fosters public mistrust.
Grego's ambitions for the district have been refreshing. His penchant for moving quickly to try to improve the district's moribund student achievement through bold initiatives like Summer Bridge and Promise Time supplemental learning camps are welcome. But launching new programs is different from overhauling them, particularly when it comes to specialized programs that serve the district's most vulnerable and complex students. Grego should have explained to the community much earlier that he saw the need for dramatic change when it comes to serving disabled students, and the School Board should have insisted upon it.