Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2019

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Ken Ward: Attorneys call the tune on special ed

AMID the accusations flying around the audit of Clark County School District's special education division, auditors and administrators can agree on one point: The whole thing is a legal field of dreams.

Putting aside the teapot tempest of the not-so-secret 15 deleted paragraphs, the 140-page report stands as a testament to the complexity of special ed. Many of the problems identified in the audit are a result of vague civil rights laws, subjective federal guidelines and ever-evolving educational philosophies.

In the last two years, 80 requests for due-process hearings have been filed by CCSD parents over evaluation, eligibility, therapy and failure to carry out individual educational plans.

Since 1991, the district has been working with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights to resolve a series of complaints about insufficient instruction and transportation.

In October 1995, the district was hit with another OCR complaint. Reiterating three issues still pending from 1991, it added five others:

Ed Sontag and David Rostetter, the consultants who conducted the audit, have charged that CCSD has been inefficient and that its policies are wasting $1.2 million a year while failing to deliver services.

"The district is top-heavy with 44 special education administrators," Sontag told the SUN last week. "Their response has essentially been to run a separate school system."

Operationally, Sontag says, the district is too hasty in classifying special-needs students and too quick to accommodate contentious parents.

That hardly seems unique to Clark County. Last Sunday, "60 Minutes" highlighted school systems spending thousands of dollars to furnish jet transportation for special ed students.

To Sontag, the local decision-makers aren't much better.

"The district caves in all the time (to parental demands). It never goes to the mat when it should. Frankly, the district has not had a good track record because of its procedural screw-ups. This has created bad policy."

There are special ed parents -- and their attorneys -- who disagree with the notion that this county is overly generous with its special ed services. They say minimum standards are presented as the maximum.

Superintendent Brian Cram says CCSD is right on the national average, classifying about 10 percent of the student population as special needs. And he believes his staff does a creditable "balancing act" of serving those pupils.

What's more, he adds, there is no incentive to artificially inflate special ed enrollment because it's a money loser. "We're getting about $18 million less than we need to cover our costs," he says.

Sontag and Rostetter are unmoved. They contend that operational flaws are compromising educational quality.

"Let's say Johnny is having a reading problem in second grade," Sontag says by way of illustration. "The (special education) bureaucracy's first impulse is to get him into a costly network. This builds the department and pads the payroll.

"We say there are savings that can come from (administrative) staff. Don't just label him handicapped. Use pre-referral intervention. Use training. Get the kid some extra language help. Move into a preventive model."

Whether this approach will satisfy every lawyer and civil rights officer is questionable. School officials have intimated that it could fuel debate over inclusion, the controversial policy of putting severely disabled children into regular classrooms.

The consultants say that the inclusion issue is a red herring. In fact, their report never advocates implementing the policy. In light of CCSD's ongoing legal entanglements, Sontag simply suggests that the current system could be improved.

Unfortunately, the dialogue -- such as it is -- has become adversarial.

Stung by an administration attack on their work, the auditors have retained a local attorney to represent them in a scheduled June 26 district meeting on the report. They are now compiling their documentation of alleged violations in the special ed division.

The detailed data, originally deemed "beyond the scope" of the audit, have now been requested by the district lawyers. Yet, curiously, no one has picked up the telephone to invite Sontag to the June 26 summit.

But be assured, the whole special ed story will come out. Add attorneys, and this plot thickens.