Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Lost in translation: District’s cost-cutting move targets non-English-speaking parents of special-needs students

When his son was diagnosed with autism a few years ago, Fernando Romero worked with the Clark County School District to develop a personalized curriculum for the boy.

Teachers reviewed test scores and grades, recommended special services and set annual learning goals for Romero's son, now 8. All of the information was written into an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a federally mandated contract between parents and schools that governs the education of a special-needs child.

For parents of the nearly 32,000 special-needs children in Clark County, the IEP serves as a roadmap to help keep students on track to succeed. These 20-page-long documents are often dense with academic and legal language, making it difficult to understand.

It helps that Romero speaks English fluently. But that's not the case for the parents of 8,000 English-language learner students with special needs in the district, the majority of whom speak Spanish at home.

Federal law mandates that a translator be present at all parent-teacher meetings where the IEP of an English-language learner student is discussed. Additionally, the School District translates IEP documents from English to the student's native language.

With the written translation, parents are able to read their child's translated IEP in their native language, understand it and refer back to it at any time. The goal of these verbal and written translations is to have parents be "full participants" in the education of their children.

However, in an attempt to save costs and "realign resources," the cash-strapped district is now contemplating dropping the written translation service for one of its most at-risk student populations. It still will be an option for parents, but one the district is betting few English-language learner parents will take.

This cost-saving proposal has Romero concerned for the many non-English-speaking families he represents as the president of Hispanics in Politics.

The community activist said he consults his son's IEP on a regular basis to ensure the youngster is getting the kind of education he needs. While a verbal translation is helpful, Romero said he still would want a physical copy of his son's IEP, just in case something goes awry.

If the School District stops translating IEP documents, Romero believes thousands of Hispanic parents could be left in the dark about their children's education.

"As a father of an autistic child, I am very upset to hear that they are planning to do this," Romero said. "I know how long it takes to understand the IEP and how technical it is. I'm appalled by this."


To understand where the School District is coming from, it's helpful to take a few steps back.

Since he came to town nearly two years ago, Superintendent Dwight Jones has sought to make the School District more efficient and cost effective. Before asking for more state funding, Jones said he wanted to ensure the best "return on investment" for every dollar currently spent.

To that end, Jones hired an outside consultant to conduct an efficiency study, published the district's budget online to obtain public feedback and tasked Student Services Officer Kim Wooden to look for potential cost-savings in every department.

These measures seem to be paying off. By repurposing some of its pre-kindergarten teachers and replacing an outdated student information system, the district expects to save more than $6 million this year. These savings will be used to hire more teachers for the district's crowded classrooms, district spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said.

Last month, a district consultant leaked a more controversial cost-saving plan to the Sun's editorial board. The proposal involved the district's 36 Spanish-language translators for English-language learner students.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that school districts that receive federal funding provide translators at every parent-teacher conference where a student's IEP is discussed. The federal law stipulates that IEP meetings be verbally translated but doesn't say whether districts should provide written translations of IEPs.

"The public agency must take whatever action is necessary to ensure that the parent understands the proceedings of the IEP team meeting, including arranging for an interpreter for parents … whose native language is other than English," the law states. "The public agency must give the parent a copy of the child's IEP at no cost to the parent."

Since 2004 — when the federal law was reauthorized — the district has erred on the side of caution and translated thousands of IEP documents each year.

However, with only 36 translators, the IEP translations quickly became backlogged. Translated IEP documents were regularly sent home six to 12 months late, meaning families with English-language learner students were receiving IEP documents for a student’s fourth-grade year just as their child entered the fifth grade.

By that time, the translated IEP was a moot issue.


To solve what was seen as a wasted effort, the district initially thought about cutting the written translation service and eliminating about half of the translators.

That would have saved the district $1.2 million, CCSD consultant Frederick Hess said earlier this year in a meeting with the Sun’s editorial board.

"The idea that undocumented folks who are getting this 18-page document mailed to them are going to make any sense of it is unlikely, and, more to the point, the district is backlogged and mailing these things out 12 months late," Hess said. "This is $1.2 million that could be spent to fund about 17 classroom positions that is instead getting wasted."

After receiving public pushback to Hess' comments — including one from a special education teacher at a recent school board meeting — the School District seemingly reversed course.

The district recently announced it would not be cutting any translators, but it still was planning to drop the translation service for non-English-speaking parents of special-needs students.

Instead, translators would be reassigned to various school zones to give staff and parents greater access to translation services, Fulkerson said. This decision would save the district $20,000.

"Rick misquoted it in his editorial piece on the translators — we’re not looking to cut that," Jones told the Sun's editorial board in a subsequent meeting. "What I need are translators who are closer to where the kids and the parents are. We're reallocating translators to actually be in regions that would have direct impact immediately instead of (sending home a translated IEP months late). By the time that document comes in everybody’s moved on.

"We’ve got to change that paradigm. This is such a good-news story."


While the district touted the $20,000 in cost-savings, Hispanic leaders in town were outraged.

"They are being pennywise and pound foolish," said civil rights activist Vicenta Montoya, who founded the Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus. "This does a huge disservice to our parents."

"There is going to be a lot of backlash (if they go through with this)," said Larry Mason, the first Hispanic elected to the School Board. "Our parents need these translation services."

Even though the School District still will offer verbal translations as an option, Hispanic leaders argued many parents with English-language learner students don't know how the school system works and will fail to ask for a translated IEP.

An oral translation may not reflect word for word what is written in the IEP and is more likely to lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, said Sylvia Lazos, a UNLV professor of civil rights.

"It's like agreeing to buy a house without reading the mortgage," Lazos said. "This will inhibit their ability to navigate the system like a white, middle-class parent."

While parents of other special-needs children can better advocate for their children because they can read their IEPs, parents of English-language learner students will just have to remember what was said in a parent-teacher meeting, said Jose Solorio, a former school board member and Hispanic activist.

The district is trying to take advantage of this vulnerable population to save a small amount of money, he said.

"It's sad, it's shameful, and it's really not legal," Solorio said.

Some Hispanic activists threatened possible legal action, including filing a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. They may have a strong case.

A similar complaint against the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in 2011 alleged that the district failed to provide school information to non-English-speaking families in a language that they could understand, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VI of the federal law states that school districts have an obligation to ensure "meaningful access" to its programs and "adequately notify" all parents about school information.

The Office of Civil Rights struck up a compromise with Cleveland officials, who agreed to develop and institute a plan to provide translations to parents of English-language learner students.

If this precedent-setting resolution in Ohio is any indication, Clark County may be forced to reconsider its proposal to eliminate translation services, Montoya said.

The translation of IEPs “is a responsibility that the School District has," she said. "They can't shirk it. They have to find a way."

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