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State Freezes Part Of Seattle's Special Ed Funding As District Takes Step To Improve

Lynne Sladky
AP Photo

State education officials have raised the stakes in Seattle Public Schools' efforts to improve services for the district's most vulnerable students, recently announcing they will hold back $3 million in federal funding until the district can get its troubled special education department back on track.

On Wednesday night, the Seattle School Board members took a step toward potentially getting that funding back, hiring an outside firm to help district officials implement a plan to fix its special education offerings.

The withheld sum amounts to more than a quarter of the district's total federal funding for special education — more than $10.6 million this school year.

While officials in the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction left open the possibility they might return the money this school year if the district improves, they also noted Seattle "has a history of unsatisfactory performance with respect to the delivery of special education services."

"The issue is not simply, 'get an external consultant,'" said Wyeth Jessee, the Seattle Public Schools' interim executive director for special education. "These are large, systemic issues that need to be transformed." 

Without Permanent Leadership Or Outside Help, State Acts

The district's efforts to improve special education have recently become almost as fraught as the special education department itself.

Last July, a scathing report from the Louisiana-based TIERS Group faulted Seattle Public Schools for "an obvious ... and chronic lack of urgency." Problems with data management and training plagued the central office's special education team, and high staff turnover in the department only exacerbated the issues.

Still, district officials characterized the report as a step in the right direction. It set the stage for improvement, they said at the time, while staving off more punitive steps from the state superintendent's office, or OSPI.

But then the TIERS consultants didn't apply to continue their contract with Seattle Public Schools to help the district implement the corrective action plan they praised, likely adding to OSPI officials' skepticism about the district's progress.

And that wasn't all that concerned state officials in the end. This summer, the district placed executive director of special education Zakiyyah McWilliams on administrative leave after concerns arose that, as the OSPI letter notes, "the third-party consultant contract awarding process ... may have been flawed."

In his decision to freeze the district's special education funding, OSPI assistant superintendent Doug Gill noted Seattle Public Schools' "failure to have both the required third-party consultant and a non-interim director of special education services in place." 

'It's Got Everybody's Full Attention'

Wednesday night's unanimous school board vote clears the way for the Seneca Family of Agencies to pick up where TIERS left off. The board approved a $421,000 contract for the California-based agency to help the district implement its corrective action plan.

In an email to state officials, Seattle Public Schools interim superintendent Larry Nyland said the district has already made significant progress in improving its special education offerings, promising to hold regular meetings with OSPI review teams and the new outside consultant.

"We understand and share your concerns about the progress Seattle Public Schools needs to make for our students in special education," Nyland wrote. "Please know that since I joined the district in June, I have been meeting with our team regularly and I am personally dedicating significant time to meeting the needs of each and every student receiving special education services."

Nyland noted the district hasn't been able to staff every special education classroom position, but added it is making hiring those teachers a priority.

Special education has "got everybody's full attention," said Jessee. "It was there, but now with the help of OSPI, it really puts a spotlight on it. It's going to take a way larger, stronger effort with a lot of smarts to it ... so that we move in a place where these issues don't arise every year or every couple years."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.