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Parents, teachers ask for special programs local levy support

Lonnie Schopen, mother of a special needs student, on Monday voices a common concern that special needs parents don’t know who to talk to about properly funding programs.  - Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times
Lonnie Schopen, mother of a special needs student, on Monday voices a common concern that special needs parents don’t know who to talk to about properly funding programs.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times

Asking for local levy money for special programs received much support from parents, teachers and staff at the Oak Harbor School Board meeting Monday evening.

The school board has been holding community forums to address possible programs to add to the 2013 levy.

Special programs, including special education, Title 1, Learning Assistance Program and English Language Learners, serve 1,300 students in the district. The district receives some state and federal funding but it isn’t enough to meet the needs of students and staff.

“The funding hasn’t kept pace with the gradually expanding number of disabilities,” Superintendent Rick Schulte said, adding that nearly every other district in the state receives local levy funding for special programs. Oak Harbor doesn’t.

Major cuts were made to special education this year, including cutting  teacher and staff positions and severely cutting back on others’ hours, said Janice Gaare, director for special programs.

Staffing is what Gaare said she would like to see levy money fund.

These staff take a kindergarten student who walks in on the first day not knowing colors, numbers or letters and has the student to grade level by the end of the year. Staff provides communication for students with autism and help intellectually disabled young adults learn to use public transportation and gain work experience, Gaare told the group of parents, teachers and staff who attended the forum.

Peter Szalai, president of the Oak Harbor Education Association, said that 65 percent of special education staff in the district donate hours of their time each day because they don’t have enough time for planning and caring for the advanced needs of these students, based on a survey of the special programs teachers in the district.

“Your teachers are chaffing under the strain of too much work and not enough time,” Szalai said, adding that teachers have reported that they love their job but fear they will burn out soon.

Oak Harbor High School Life Skills teacher Holly Worrell said the emphasis needs to be put on the students instead of the teachers.

“We as a district have to stand up for these students. We need to teach these students that they matter,” Worrell said, to applause from the crowd.

Kevin Butler is the caretaker for his 6-year-old grandson, who has autism and is prone to violence. He described caring for him as a “daily struggle” offset by the care of his great teachers.

“It’s time we go to the government and make them pay,” Butler said.

School board member Peter Hunt said he agreed and that while school board members routinely speak with legislators, he would like to see more voters take action.

“That’s where the real power comes from,” Hunt said.

Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon added that the legislators he speaks with say they are surprised so few parents contact them about education. Legislators expect to hear from the community and need to hear from teachers, staff and families with compelling stories, Gibbon said.

Representing the Oak Harbor area in Olympia are Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, Rep. Barbara Bailey and Rep. Norma Smith.

Lonnie Schopen has personal experience as the mother of a special needs son in high school.

“If we don’t help them, they have no future,” Schopen said.

However, parents of special needs students don’t know who to speak with to receive help for special programs, Schopen said, expressing a sentiment echoed by various others.

Former school board member Dave McCool agreed that the community is under-supporting special education.

“Everyone in this room needs to bring someone with power in the community,” McCool said. To enact change, business and community leaders need to hear what passionate parents and teachers say at the forums, McCool said.

Schopen would like to see the community get to know special needs children, which doesn’t cost money. She suggested a buddy system in the schools, pairing a child without disabilities with a special needs child so that students learn to respect and help special needs children, who benefit from the socialization.

Past forums have suggested the 2013 levy help fund athletics and activities, transportation, food services, facilities, textbooks and technology.

OHHS associate principal Bill Weinsheimer said he’s noticed a specific passionate group of supporters for each of those categories, with little crossover. Everyone needs to communicate and think of Oak Harbor schools in general instead of these isolated groups because that pits one group against another in the fight for funding. That makes it easy for sports supporters to save sports by eliminating special programs funding and “we’re doomed if we do that,” Weinsheimer said.

“I think it’s really important to think about the levy as a way to fund Oak Harbor schools,” Weinsheimer said.

The community is welcome to email opinions to Schulte at rschulte@ohsd.net.

 

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