Arlington school officials found themselves on the defensive May 8, besieged by parents angry over proposed changes in how the school district supports students with autism.
Those parents used the School Board’s budget hearing to attack the proposed changes and demand that funding be restored to maintain the number of teacher aides currently on hand to help their children.
“We’ve got something successful,” parent Gordon Whitman said of the existing support network for students with autism. “They work together as a team. Let’s not do harm to what we have.”
Julia Paley, who also spoke out, voiced concerns that the proposed changes would “cripple the program.”
Parents organized after school officials announced plans to shave about $270,000 from next year’s budget by cutting the number of staff allocated to assist students with autism. Seven of the 12 staff positions to help middle-school and high-school students participate in mainstream classrooms are on the chopping block.
“My daughter just couldn’t make it without these assistants in her classes, helping her, guiding her, giving her skills she’ll need throughout life,” said Peter Nissen, one of the leaders of the movement to stop the cuts.
“It’s a spectacular program,” Nissen said. “Why undermine what’s working?”
Brenda Wilkes, the school system’s assistant superintendent for student services, said the goal was not to cut services, but to provide them in a more efficient way.
“This will work,” she said of the proposed changes. “The support is going to be there. We just want to build flexibility into the program.”
“If at any time additional supports are needed, they will be put in place,” she promised.
School leaders appear to be fearful that the growing number of students diagnosed with autism-related issues could financially overwhelm the school system.
“This is a population that is growing quickly,” School Board member Sally Baird said. “We have a pipeline of students that start with us when they’re really young and stay with us until they are 18 or 21.”
Baird, however, said she was keeping an open mind before deciding whether to support the parents or the school staff.
“I’m looking to see more detail,” she said at the May 8 meeting.
The strident tone of some of the parents clearly hit a raw nerve, which often can prove counterproductive when dealing with Arlington elected officials.
School Board member Noah Simon chastised those who he felt went overboard to foster what he said had deteriorated into an “adversarial relationship.”
“We can do better than that,” Simon told a roomful of advocates at the board meeting. “Take a deep breath.”
Simon said name-calling – suggesting that school leaders don’t care about children with special needs – was both wrong and offensive.
“What we looked for was compromise,” said Simon. “All-or-nothing doesn’t usually work as good governance.”
A final decision is expected by the time the School Board adopts its half-billion-dollar fiscal 2015 spending plan, a vote currently scheduled for May 22.
School Board Vice Chairman James Lander said that even if the changes are made, there will be contingency funds included in the budget to provide additional support, as needed.
But he acknowledged parents were likely to remain unmollified.
“The rate of change we’re going at is concerning some,” he said.