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Originally published September 9, 2013 at 8:50 PM | Page modified September 9, 2013 at 10:16 PM

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State wants more details on Seattle’s special-ed plan

The state is asking for more details before approving Seattle Public Schools’ plan for fixing its special-education program. Federal money could be delayed if Seattle doesn’t respond swiftly.

Seattle Times education reporter

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The state has rejected the Seattle school district’s latest plan to improve services for students with disabilities, asking for more details before releasing millions of dollars in federal special-education money.

Last spring, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction gave the district 18 months to fix longstanding problems or risk losing about $11 million a year in federal support.

Doug Gill, the office’s special-education director, said Monday that the district’s latest proposal for fixing those problems, dated Aug. 29, is closer to the mark than the plan submitted in June and rejected later in the summer.

“This particular plan is certainly an improvement in both depth and content from the prior plan,” Gill said. “We just want to be sure that everybody is on the same page in terms of what the requirements and expectations are.”

But in a Sept. 6 letter to the district, Gill told the district it needs to explain more specifically what steps it’s taking to train principals and teachers in individual buildings and ensure their compliance with districtwide special-education policies.

The district aims to respond by Sept. 20.

“That’s what I’ll be working on for the next two weeks,” said special-education director Stacey McCrath-Smith, second in command of the special-education department.

For years the state has been urging Seattle to address dozens of problems in its special-ed program, including failures to update student learning plans, deliver services outlined in those plans and provide services consistently from school to school. The issue came to a head in April when the state demanded improvements and threatened to hold up federal funds if Seattle didn’t get its act together.

On Monday, McCrath-Smith disputed whether the state could make good on that threat.

All school districts submit annual requests for federal special-education funds. Seattle submitted its request Sept. 3. Gill said districts typically begin receiving that money 30 days after they submit the paperwork, but there is no loss of funds if approval is delayed.

He said federal money could be held up longer if Seattle does not submit an acceptable plan.

“They need approval of the plan to proceed and start drawing down their federal funds,” Gill said.

However, McCrath-Smith said she doesn’t think the state can interfere with the district’s application for federal funds, but she said it’s a question for the district’s lawyers.

“I know that he’s mentioned that before,” McCrath-Smith said. “We have no legal, in-writing document from the state indicating that. Obviously if there is any kind of threat to not allow funding, that would have to come in an official statement.”

Gill responded by email that the state has the authority and obligation to make sure that Seattle’s current application for federal funds “does not include unresolved corrective actions from the prior school year before funds are released for use in the current school year.”

In its latest letter to the district, the state asked it to provide clarification, explicit details or additional information on 25 items, including a copy of a new model the district plans to use for providing special-education services.

“I think it would be fair for us to ask to see a copy of the model and some idea of the lessons that they think they’ve learned or mistakes that they won’t repeat as they implement the new model,” Gill said.

McCrath-Smith said that information wasn’t included in the district’s latest improvement plan because much of the model depended on the new teachers contract with the Seattle Education Association (SEA), which was approved Sept. 3.

“It was dependent upon our collective-bargaining agreement because it is a huge partnership with SEA,” McCrath said. “Until the contract was ratified, we were kind of in a holding pattern.”

The district identified four root causes for the problems that triggered the state’s demand for improvement: a decentralized system where building principals weren’t always on the same page about how services should be delivered, inconsistent leadership and accountability, a troubled transition to an online system for keeping track of students’ individual academic plans, and increases in enrollment without sufficient staff increases to keep up.

McCrath said the district would dedicate about $1.2 million of its annual federal special-education money to putting the improvement plan into action. Most of that would be spent on adding the equivalent of nine new full-time employees, including school psychologists, therapists and a new position that would answer parents’ questions and concerns about special education.

While the district already has an ombudsman who deals with general complaints, the new parent liaison would be specially trained to handle complaints that involve special-education services, McCrath-Smith said.

Turnover of top administrators has been a persistent problem. Its executive director, Zakiyyah McWilliams, arrived in mid-May, the eighth person to lead the department in five years.

Now McCrath-Smith, her next in command, is leaving at the end of next week to become associate director of special education for the Lake Washington School District.

“The 20th will be my last day of work with the district,” McCrath-Smith said.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or jhiggins@seattletimes.com

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