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Obama bucks boost special ed

Special education teacher Heidi McDonald of Hillcrest Elementary School has her students read a passage in their Story Town books. The incoming stimulus funds will pay for an additional six to nine special education positions.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Special education teacher Heidi McDonald of Hillcrest Elementary School has her students read a passage in their Story Town books. The incoming stimulus funds will pay for an additional six to nine special education positions.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

The saying “all roads lead to the White House” appeared to be true Tuesday, after school officials discovered President Barack Obama received direct word about Oak Harbor schools and their potential use of funds from the economic stimulus plan.

Superintendent Rick Schulte and school board President Corey Johnson were in Washington, D.C. lobbying on behalf of Impact Aid, which provides $5 million annually to the district. They stopped by U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen’s office to thank him for his support of Oak Harbor schools, and laid out a draft plan for using the federal stimulus money.

“Rick was taking notes and he told us, ‘This is great stuff,’” Johnson said.

Larsen left for a meeting at the White House an hour later, where he and other Democratic members of Congress met with President Obama. The discussion was on economic recovery.

“I told the president news I heard just today from my constituents in Oak Harbor,” Larsen said in a press release.

Larsen explained that the Oak Harbor School District, which serves a large number of military families, will hire an additional 12 teachers and move forward with school construction projects that will create new jobs.

During the next two years, the district is expected to receive about $1.6 million for special education and $500,000 for Title I, which helps schools that have a high percentage of low-income families.

The stimulus funds are only directed at these two programs, and must be used to create new positions. The money cannot be used to pay for current positions or to make up for future or existing budget cuts.

“They set the stage for how to not misuse it. They learned from the initial bank bailout, and they won’t make the same mistake twice,” Schulte said, adding that the Department of Education encourages transparency.

While the district has protected the special education department from budget cuts, Schulte said the program has been underfunded for years. The stimulus funds will only be available for two years, but officials plan to lobby for additional funds.

“When the federal government first passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, they reiterated that they will pay 40 percent. They have never done that. It’s about 17 percent,” Schulte said.

The draft plan for special education includes hiring six to nine certified positions for the next two years, including a school psychologist, an occupational therapist and a speech therapist. It also calls for hiring two to four support positions.

The department has already begun advertising.

“We understand that since all the districts get stimulus funding, it will be especially hard to fill these positions. They are highly sought after professionals,” said Gail Cleveland, Oak Harbor’s special education director.

Title I money would be used to hire three teachers or six to eight support positions. Schools currently designated as Title I schools include Olympic View, Crescent Harbor and Oak Harbor elementary schools.

“The money is for remedial teachers, for kids who are a little below average in math and reading,” Johnson said.

Stimulus funding will also include money for construction projects and for districts with high military populations. Oak Harbor is set to receive about $800,000. Schulte said the money will go toward minor construction and maintenance.

An official plan for the money will be developed in August, when the district completes its budget. The goal of the administration is to get stimulus dollars out the by the end of April.

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