State education officials visit ICCSD to check special ed compliance

Iowa Department of Education (IDE) officials were in Iowa City this week to complete a review of special education procedures and budgeting. The review focuses on accreditation and fiscal compliance for 2015 for the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) and will look into ICCSD special education programming together with an examination of the district’s financing of special education.

Special education in the ICCSD outpaces its revenue to a degree that it has created the “largest special education deficit” in Iowa, according to a May 4 letter sent to ICCSD Superintendent Stephen Murley and ICCSD Board president Chris Lynch. This means more is spent on ICCSD’s special education students than the rest of the state.

Photo by Adam Burke
“There is a paperwork element to [the ICCSD visit from IDE officials], but it’s deeper than that,” according to GWAEA’s Maria Cashman — photo by Adam Burke

The letter was signed by Iowa IDE Deputy Director Jeff Berger and Amy Williamson, Chief of the Bureau of School Improvement, and warned school officials of the visit, originally scheduled for May 24-27.

A team of 7-10 IDE investigators visited the ICCSD Administration building this week. Williamson said her team hoped to wrap the review by the end of Thursday. She said they conducted classroom observations and met with some board members, teachers and administrators.

The IDE visit is a follow up to “anomalies” found last fall by the Grant Wood Area Education Agency (GWAEA) in ICCSD students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that may have included missed meetings, discrepancies on meeting dates and decisions being made outside IEP meetings. The IEPs are required by law for special education students and are reviewed by a GWAEA team that works with teachers, students and parents to develop an education plan in accordance with Iowa Code, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and federal regulations.

In a letter from Jan. 4, GWAEA sent corrective actions for the district to implement. According to the May 4 letter from the IDE, the district “specifically stated an intention to fail to comply with the timeline required.”

On Thursday night, Superintendent Murley said in an email, “In January 2016, the District was directed to reconvene over 100 IEP meetings before June 1, 2016. The District reviewed all IEPs in question to confirm parent participation and that services as appropriate were being provided. Once confirmed, the District did request relief from the June 1 deadline. Regardless of that request, the District has worked diligently to meet with families to conduct the required IEP meetings and all have been completed.”

The issue goes beyond checking boxes on a form or filling out paperwork according to GWAEA Director of Special Education Maria Cashman.

“There is a paperwork element to [the ICCSD visit from IDE officials], but it’s deeper than that,” Cashman said on Thursday by phone. She added that IDE officials would be checking that “things are not only in compliance, but that everybody’s needs in the system, mainly the students’, are being met.”

Cashman said it was the only visit the GWAEA had made to any of its 32 districts to follow up on special education directives this year and that it was “less than typical” to visit a district about compliance like this.

State-wide area education agencies, like the GWAEA, implement state regulations and provide general supervision for schools in the state.

Board member Phil Hemingway said he had not been fully informed about the IDE visit. He said he’d asked about putting special education on the next board meeting agenda.

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“There are board members whose questions and emails get responded to immediately and there are others that don’t and get delayed and it’s said that the language is too strong or confrontational,” he said.

Hemingway sent a letter to Superintendent Murley on Wednesday regarding the IDE visit after being interviewed. He said he did not see the May 4 letter from the state until after his talk with the IDE officials.

The IDE will take several weeks to compile results from the inquiry and decide on further action for the schools.

The next ICCSD board meeting is June 14 at 6 p.m.

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