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Originally published September 26, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 26, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Education

Spotlight on special needs

Parents in two school districts are getting together to determine how to be more effective advocates for their special-education students.

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Special-ed parents to meet

Parents of special-education students in the Edmonds and Everett school districts are meeting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Brunswick Majestic Bowling Lanes, 1300 164th St. S.W., Lynnwood, to learn how Seattle special-education parents organized a PTSA to advocate for their children. For more information, call Julie Gelo at 206-940-3843

Bobby Cavanaugh sings in the school choir and plays violin at Maplewood K-8 Parent Co-operative school in Edmonds.

But the bus that picks up the visually impaired eighth-grader was late every day for the first week and a half of school. He missed choir and was late for a math-support class, the one subject in which he struggles.

His dad, Mike Cavanaugh, says the same thing has happened the first several weeks of school for the past eight years.

"Why do we have to go through the same thing every year? Why can't they have this planned out ahead of time?" he asks, his voice a mixture of frustration and pain.

The parents of special-education students in the Edmonds and Everett school districts say their isolated efforts to improve services for their children often haven't produced results. Now they are organizing their own PTAs or similar support groups to unify their voices and address issues that include transportation, program continuity and therapist caseload.

"Transportation is just the tip of the iceberg," said Bobby's mother, Diane Cavanaugh. "Special education gets the short stick."

Local school districts say they're often in the tough position of having to say no to parents who want more services than the districts can afford. Federal law requires them to provide an "appropriate education" to students with a wide range of disabilities. Districts say that doesn't mean the "Cadillac" of educational services.

"Parents want the best for their children, and why wouldn't they?" said Katy Wysocki, director of student services in the Edmonds School District. "Unfortunately, we don't have the funding to provide the best in all situations."

Districts say they already spend millions in local levy dollars to make up the difference between the cost of special-ed services and what the state provides in funding.

Everett was one of 12 school districts that last year challenged the state's special-education funding formula. Under that formula, special-education students received a flat-rate payment about double of what is paid for basic education students, regardless of the level of services required.

"A student who is medically fragile, requiring toileting, tube feeding and all the special equipment, is going to cost a lot more than one who spends time with a speech therapist twice a week, but we receive the same amount from the state," said Everett schools spokeswoman Mary Waggoner.

In March, a Thurston County Superior Court judge refused to overturn the funding formula, saying it was consistent with national standards. But the judge did throw out a cap that limits districts to identifying no more than 12.7 percent of their students as special-education pupils.

Edmonds officials estimate the district will spend $22.7 million on its 2,730 special-education students this year. Everett last year spent about $17 million for 2,347 students. Special-education funding as a percentage of the total of district budgets hasn't varied much in the past several years, according to figures from the districts.

In Seattle, some special-education parents said they were concerned with the portrayal during the lawsuit of their children being a drain on education resources.

Rose Yu, one of the organizers of a PTSA formed last year for Seattle special-education parents, said that since forming, the group has held monthly meetings with the school district. It also has served as a resource for parents on how to advocate for their children, challenge an individual education plan, and provide support for teachers and aides.

"It can be very lonely being the parent of a special-needs child," Yu said.

In Everett, Julie Gelo said she was tired of being a "pesky gnat" trying to get the school district's attention. The mother of seven adopted children, all with special needs, is hosting a meeting of parents Tuesday in Lynnwood to learn from the Seattle parents about how to organize and advocate for their children.

"What I hear from many parents is they don't get responded to, they get brushed aside, they are not treated as equals," Gelo said.

Erika Larimer, an Edmonds parent whose son has a rare seizure disorder and a profound speech disability, said special-education programs in the Edmonds School District are often moved from one school to another without consulting parents.

She said speech therapists have heavy caseloads which leaves them overworked and some students underserved. She also said there's high turnover among special-education teachers and aides because of the heavy demands of the job.

The three-year teacher contract in Edmonds ratified in August for the first time contains limits on caseloads of speech and language therapists and class size for special-education teachers, Wysocki said. Therapists will each be limited to 60 students the first year. That drops to 50 in the third year of the contract.

Larimer said she's helping form a support and advocacy group for Edmonds special-education parents so they can help each other navigate the system and bring attention to problems like high caseloads.

"No one gives you a manual when you have one of these beautiful babies. Nowhere is that truer than when you enter the public-school system. I want to help more parents and be helped by more parents. We have so many common issues," she said.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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