Back in May, a group of parents, San Diego Unified staff and community members sent a letter  to the school board, warning that cuts to the district budget could hit disabled students the hardest.
“[Students with disabilities] are disciplined at double the rate of their nondisabled peers and continue to face the greatest disparity in all measures of achievement,” the letter says. “We are skeptical that fewer staff, limited services and scarce supports on the school site combined with fewer administrators and resource teachers leading the districtwide work … will create growth in educational outcomes for [students with disabilities].”
The school board cut the special education department’s budget  by $7.92 million, according to February budget documents.
Now, one of the letter’s authors says some of the concerns her group sounded the alarm over are playing out before their eyes.
Principals say they are stressed and strained by a shortage of staff. The district has used interns to teach some special education classes and even asked parents to help fill aide positions.
District officials say some of the concerns being voiced aren’t necessarily a result of the cuts. Some are the result of a transition to new consolidated classrooms. Some are systemic issues in special education, plaguing all districts, every year.
Deann Ragsdale, executive director of special education at San Diego Unified, said the district was careful to look at the historical and current needs of students with disabilities to ensure that the cuts wouldn’t impact services to students.
The district even added special education teaching positions amid the fiscal crunch to help with the transition, she said.
“I think, as a system, we’re all sort of adjusting across the system with budget cuts,” Ragsdale said. “But it was a priority within our department to look at the services students were going to need, how to maintain that and how to do that even better if we could.”
Others have a less rosy view of how special education has been going this year.
Principals, Parents Sound the Alarm on Staffing
The Administrators Association of San Diego, the union that represents principals, vice principals and other administration positions in the Central Office, asked its members in a survey to detail the most serious challenges they’ve been facing since July. Special education came up frequently in the responses.
“Reduction of special ed department at district level has made getting services and implementing [Individualized Education Programs] impossible,” read one response from a vice principal . That’s a reference to documents developed for every student with a disability to outline the child’s needs, behaviors, goals and how his or her progress is measured.
The elementary school principal survey noted similar concerns :
“Staffing. Absorbing another schools mod/severe with little additional support staff for very high needs students.”
“Lack of SPED staffing.”
“Paraeducator allocation is insufficient creating supervision and safety concerns.”
“Vacancies in critical Sped positions such as [Special Education Behavioral Technician], Teacher. I am spending all day, every day supporting student behavior needs that are physically aggressive and safety concerns.”
The middle school principal survey  had one particularly disturbing response from what seems to be a school site specifically for students with special needs.
The school has more than 250 students with special needs. Shortages in nursing and aid staff resulted in two 911 calls within the first two weeks of school. The school has lost nearly 50 students because of transportation issues caused by the budget cuts, the administrator wrote .
“The stress and strain of having to take on so many roles as an administrator and to overcome so many support services being cut (both on site and at Central Office) make doing this job virtually impossible to do well and to give the students the support they deserve,” reads the survey response.
At a September committee meeting, several parents from Franklin Elementary School said their children were in special education classes that seemed far too large and had too few aides.
At the beginning of the school year, one class at Franklin had 20 students with one teacher and one aide, said at least three parents at the meeting. Several more students needed one-on-one aides, but did not have them.
The teachers’ union agreement with the district says that classes for students with moderate to severe disabilities – like the one at Franklin – should maintain a 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio.
At an October committee meeting, Ragsdale told parents that the district had a shortage of aides to help students with disabilities. Aides help students with academics and behavioral problems.
She asked the parents at the meeting to consider applying to be aides or substitutes for aides.
Ragsdale said in an interview that the staffing shortages aren’t necessarily indicators that the budget cuts have disproportionately impacted special education.
Special education often faces staffing challenges, Ragsdale said. There are always shortages of credentialed special education teachers  and paraeducators, the aides for students with special needs. The problems aren’t unique to this school year, or this budget, she said.
Ragsdale said that the issues facing special education – and workarounds like hiring interns or parents in special education classes – all exist in other districts in which she’s worked.
“That is a profession with a huge turnover,” Ragsdale said. “We have a shortage. We have vacancies and we are recruiting. I will tell you historically across districts, your paraprofessional group is a group with high turnover.”
At the October meeting, Ragsdale also said that 63 special education complaints had been filed against the district since July. During the same period last year, the district had 60 complaints.
The Impact of Consolidation
The district’s shift to consolidate elementary school classes for students with moderate to severe disabilities in certain schools is also impacting special education. Before, a student with a severe disability could go to his or her neighborhood school and be put in a separate class if needed.
Ragsdale said the shift wasn’t cost-driven, though the consolidation saved the district money.
When classes were available at every school, some only had two or three kids. One class had six students whose ages ranged from transitional kindergarten to eighth grade. It was overly isolating for many students, and made it difficult for staff to provide a quality education, Ragsdale said.
“We’ve never not been transparent about the fact that it resulted in cost-savings because it was the consolidation of classrooms, but it wasn’t the goal and it wasn’t the reason,” Ragsdale said. “It was a programmatic conversation about how to better deliver services.”
But the district’s estimates ended up being off in a couple of circumstances.
Ragsdale said the district added four new special education teaching positions over the summer once officials realized some of the classes would be bigger than they thought.
“That’s pretty unprecedented, and demonstrated that even when the fiscal is a concern and we are making tough decisions about finances, there are decisions being made about putting children first,” she said.
“Every year we have this staffing turnover for students with disabilities,” said Moira Allbritton, the chair of the special education committee that voiced concerns over the budget cuts earlier in the year. “Those happen every year, but this year the difference is that I’m getting more complaints than I’m used to hearing in terms of the staffing being adequate.”
Allbritton said she could have predicted some of the issues she’s hearing about now, based on the cuts the district made.
For example, the district cut many special education behavioral technicians , who help students with serious behavioral issues. Sometimes those behavioral issues not only disrupt the classroom, but can pose safety concerns.
Many students with disabilities, particularly those who may have tendencies to act out, have a much harder time with transitions, like a new school, new routine or new teacher.
“In the middle of the year, when there was pressure to see what positions were necessary, those resources probably seemed underutilized, but at the beginning of the year, they’re really needed,” Allbritton said. “So when we cut those positions, I can point and say whatever turmoil we’re having now would be reduced by having that resource available to deploy.”
Ragsdale said her staff and educators at schools have been resourceful, despite any challenges.
One example, she said, was that several people in central office positions who were credentialed teachers went out to work in classrooms with teacher vacancies during the first week.
Allbritton agreed that parents, students and educators always grapple with certain shortages and instability in special education.
“But I do maintain that we are experiencing it at a different level this year,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Moira Allbritton.