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Originally published Tuesday, August 6, 2013 at 6:44 PM

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Seattle Public Schools falling behind on special-ed reforms

Facing an 18-month deadline to fix big problems in its special-education programs, Seattle Public Schools is already in trouble.

Seattle Times education reporter

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To fix longstanding problems in Seattle Public Schools’ special-education programs, the district’s first step was to write a correction plan — and already it has stumbled.

The school district submitted a proposal to state officials by the June 30 deadline, but they have rejected it, saying it falls far short of what is required.

In April, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction gave the district 18 months to fix its shortcomings or risk losing $11 million a year in federal support.

Doug Gill, the office’s special-education director, said the district’s proposal, dated June 28, was better than an earlier draft, but it still lacked a clear objective, timeline and budget — even after state officials thought they had clearly told the district to provide all that.

Gill’s office also had asked the district to identify the root causes of the problems, but Gill didn’t see that either.

“I really want them to be successful,” he said, “but I can’t sign off on something when I don’t even feel like I have a clear idea of what they intend to do.”

One out of every seven students in Seattle — roughly 7,000 in all — receives special-education services for issues ranging from autism to attention deficit disorder and learning impairments.

For years the state has been urging Washington’s largest school district to address dozens of problems in its special-ed programs. The state says, for example, that too many of the learning plans that all special-education students must have are out of date and too many services outlined in up-to-date plans aren’t provided. Other problems include inconsistencies in services from school to school and taking too much time to resolve parent complaints.

One of the biggest concerns is lack of consistency. Very often, Gill said, the district will fix a problem in one school or group of schools, only to have it crop up in others.

Until officials provide an acceptable plan, Gill said, he won’t approve even the federal support that the district is supposed to get this school year — even before the 18 months are up.

The state, which is responsible for dispersing those funds, would risk its own standing with the federal government if it doesn’t insist on a solid plan first, he said.

$80 million budget

Seattle schools officials say they expect to send Gill’s office a revised proposal in the next few weeks.

They had few answers for why the district hasn’t already provided what the state requested — especially since they said in early June that they didn’t dispute the state’s concerns, had known about them for years, and were nearly done with a plan to attend to them.

Zakiyyah McWilliams, who arrived in Seattle in mid-May to lead the district’s special-ed department, said she met with Gill in mid-July and now understands the level of detail the state wants. She said work on the rejected plan was well under way when she arrived and, while she gave input, she hadn’t read it fully before it was submitted.

“When you have a transition in leadership, things like this can happen,” she said.

Still, she took responsibility for it, and pledged to get it right this time.

McWilliams said she did not know that this coming school year’s federal special-ed funding was at risk, even though Gill said the state had made that very clear.

District officials had thought that could occur after the 18 months, but not before. McWilliams said she would make sure the district receives the money on schedule.

The public “should know that the team in the department of special education ... is very committed to complying with state regulations and doing what’s best for children,” she said.

The $11 million from the federal government is just a portion of the roughly $80 million that the district spends on those services each year, but it is a significant portion.

High turnover

Leadership turnover may be one reason why Seattle continues to have problems.

McWilliams is the eighth person to lead the special-education department in five years, and while some of those people were interim directors, there have been so many of them that the distinction seems nearly irrelevant.

Whatever the cause, the state lost patience with the district and set the 18-month deadline, making Seattle Public Schools the first district in at least 20 years to face serious sanctions over special education. The state could choose to take control of the district’s special-ed funding as well as withhold it.

The district’s latest proposal does include some specifics, such as plans to hire more districtwide special-education staff. But it lacks explanations about why and how.

While it says, for example, that it plans to tailor special-ed training to each school’s needs, it doesn’t say how it will evaluate each school’s strengths and weaknesses or what kind of training might be provided.

The plan felt like it was put together in a rush, Gill said, despite the fact that district officials have said they have been working on it for months.

“I hate to sound skeptical, but it doesn’t appear that they have put as much thought into this as they need to,” he said.

The longer it takes to complete an acceptable plan, he added, the less time the district will have to put it into place. Since the deadline was set in April, four months have passed, which means the district now has just 14 months to finish the plan and put it in place.

The deadline won’t move, Gill said, just because planning is taking longer than it should.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @LShawST

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