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ICCSD discusses changes to special education programs

IOWA CITY– The Iowa City Community School District’s sensitivity and lack of communication regarding its special education programs has been called into question, as community members gathered to speak about changes to the program at the Tuesday, June 9, school board meeting.
First, parents voiced concerns about the district’s plans to move Shimek Elementary School’s special education program.
According to parents, they were told at the end of the school year that the program would be relocated to Hoover Elementary School for the upcoming year. After that, they said, the program would be moved to new ICCSD elementary school Alexander.
The move is a disadvantage to several parents who stated they chose to open enroll their children into Shimek rather than their home schools because of the school’s special education program.
Special Services Director Carmen Dixon said it was a change in student population that caused the program to be moved, and it was not planned by the district.
She added there were no intentions to move the program to Hoover; the plan was to move the program to Alexander once the district discovered the change in student population.
Parents expressed their concerns that the district was springing these changes on a population of students that particularly need stability and routine in their lives.
“They need to know that the paraeducators, the other children, and the teachers can understand and grow with them,” said Jessie Witherell, who has a pre-school aged son who attends Shimek. “If you keep changing them from classroom to classroom, year after year, how are they going to grow in a community?”
The board sympathized with parents and questioned why administration chose to tell parents verbally, rather than through a written letter or a scheduled meeting between parents and staff.
“In situations like this, I think it would be appropriate to just practice overkill,” Director Orville Townsend said.
Superintendent Stephen Murley said the administration felt it would be best to tell parents as early as possible, with the news coming from a familiar staff member, such as the school principal.
The board later discussed changes to its special education bussing procedures. Beginning next year, the ICCSD will no longer use bus monitors provided by Durham School Services in its special education buses. It will replace these monitors with paraeducators employed by the district.
The ICCSD had been working on this change for the past 18 months before deciding to move forward with the update.
Dixon said the change would help improve behavior and disciplinary issues with students, because paraeducators would already be familiar with each student’s needs and individualized education plan (IEP).
However, parents disagreed, saying that the change would create even more instability for their children as they adjust to having new assistants, while paraeducators who may not have worked with their children before would have to learn the specific habits and behavior of the students.
Again the issue of communication was raised by parents, Durham employees, and board members who felt the administration had failed to communicate the changes slated to take place.
“I would feel better if this was something the board knew was going to happen,” Director Orville Townsend said.
According to some administrative officials, they were unable to tell the community earlier because of contractual obligations with Durham, who was responsible for informing its own employees. Chief Operating Officer David Dude said that discussing the change in a public board meeting would have created issues with that contract.
Director Patti Fields said the situation further demonstrated that the board needed to revive its operations committee, which would oversee such changes.
The committee most recently comprised directors, Jeff McGinness, Tuyet Baruah and President Chris Lynch.
Dude said in addition to the student benefits, the change would save the district “several thousands of dollars.” These savings would come from the difference in cost of a bus monitor versus a paraeducator, and the fact that the ICCSD would not have to hire additional staff because the paraeducators would already be employed by the district.
Building administrator training was held for the program change earlier this year and paraeducators will go through training in August.
The final contract with Durham was expected to be discussed at length at the board’s next regular meeting.

Public comment
The board also had its first reading of an updated community comment policy on June 9 to govern the way public remarks are offered during board meetings. Under the new policy, all community members wishing to speak- on both agenda and non-agenda items- would have to do so at the beginning of the meeting. Speakers would have up to four minutes to make their comments, and the public comment session would be closed after one hour, unless the president decided otherwise. Those who still wished to speak after the allotted time period could make their comments at the end of the meeting.
Under the previous policy, speakers could make comments on non-agenda items at the beginning the meeting, and comments pertaining to specific agenda items would be made once that item was brought up during the meeting.
Director Brian Kirschling is the current head of the Policy and Engagement Committee, which was tasked with creating the updated policy. Kirschling said the changes were made so community members would not have to wait four or sometimes five hours to make their comments. He added that ICCSD board meetings are unique in the fact that they allow several chances for community members to speak throughout.
However, Baruah worried that this change could be seen as an attempt to limit public comment at the meetings and that comments made in the beginning of meetings about agenda items could have less impact once that item is actually discussed.
“That’s one of the things that makes our community so unique is that we don’t necessarily always follow all the other school districts, and we try to be as inclusive as possible,” Baruah added.
The second and third readings of the policy were held together June 23, and the updated policy passes 5-1, with Buruah voting against it.