In May 2017, investigators seemed to have an open-and-shut case against Escondido Union School District – the ninth largest school district in San Diego County with nearly 20,000 students.
The district appeared to be violating special education law – and covering it up with an act of semantic deception. Escondido officials had given some of the district’s special education teachers new titles, which meant the district wouldn’t have to abide by the state’s legally required 28-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
They eliminated the category of “resource specialist” teacher and transferred most of the duties to “specialized academic instruction” or SAI teachers, who do not have a state-mandated caseload.
Officials with the California Department of Education told Escondido to stop the word games and comply with the cap. Many disagreements between state and school district would end there. But Escondido did not relent. The district used taxpayer dollars to start a lengthy court battle testing its interpretation, which would have opened the door for school districts across the state to disregard caseload requirements.
Last month, a Superior Court judge sided with the state , and his ruling is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.
“Can you imagine if you’re the parent of a child who needs a resource teacher and you find out the school district changed their title so they can give them 40-something students?” said Don Arballo, who was president of the Escondido teacher’s union when the state completed its investigation. “With the legal fees the district spent, they probably could have hired additional resource teachers.”
Resource specialists, commonly referred to as resource teachers, work with students who need special services but spend most of the day in a general education class. They work one-on-one or in small groups with students who have learning disabilities or special education needs.
The district’s actions came to light when Alison Owen, an SAI teacher, filed a complaint with the state Department of Education. Owen did not respond to a request for comment.
“She was brave enough to put her name on that initial complaint,” said Arballo, who also noted several SAI teachers had caseloads above the legal requirement at the time. Before filing the complaint, Arballo and Owen went to talk to district officials about “how they were in the wrong,” he said. The district acknowledged Owen’s caseload at times reached above 40 and offered support such as classroom aides. But the district would not acknowledge Owen essentially functioned as a resource specialist, and would not guarantee the caseload cap.
Trying to adequately staff the district’s special education department with limited funds is a persistent problem, Doug Paulson, a board trustee for Escondido Union, told me. Paulson emphatically denied that the district pursued legal action so it could increase caseloads for special education teachers.
“Our goal, especially with special education, is to keep class sizes as low as possible,” he said.
Escondido’s arguments hinged on several technicalities. In California, for instance, a teacher may have an enhancement on his or her license to teach as a “resource specialist.” This enhancement is granted on top of a special education teaching credential. The state Department of Education has ruled that other enhancements or experience can also qualify a teacher to work as a resource specialist.
But because Owen did not specifically possess the specific resource specialist license enhancement, Escondido officials argued that’s not what she was. State officials said that because she performed the essential duties of a resource specialist and qualified as one, that’s exactly what she was.
Jon Vanderpool, an attorney for Owen, summed up Escondido’s case: “It walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and flies like a duck … but it’s not a duck.”
Escondido officials also argued that the Department of Education’s ruling was not consistent with previous decisions in other districts. In some other cases, state officials had ruled that SAI teachers had similar responsibilities to resource specialists, but were not the same.
In Escondido, state officials said that wasn’t the case. Escondido fully eliminated its resource specialist program in 2009. State officials argued Escondido was using SAI teachers to fill the gap. San Diego Superior Court Judge Earl Maas agreed.
“Fortunately, the law does not support interpretations and results that are absurd and out of step with the purpose of the statute,” Department of Education lawyers wrote in one court filing.
I asked Paulson if he felt like the district wasted money pursuing two the case in court for two years.
“I think any time we lose litigation we need to relook at it. We definitely are relooking at this lawsuit and others to make sure we’re making the best decisions,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know if this use of taxpayer dollars was a good use or not.”
The district was not able to immediately provide specific figures on how much it spent securing outside legal counsel to argue the case.
Pending final judgment in the case, Paulson said the district will not pursue any further appeals going forward.