Special Report
Special Education

‘Funding Cliff’ Hits Special Education in N.C. District

May 02, 2011 4 min read
Special education teacher Julie Morgan welcomes a student at Blair Elementary School in New Hanover County, N.C. The county school district is planning to lay off her teaching assistant when federal stimulus funds run out this summer

North Carolina teacher Julie Morgan spent five years developing a program that would allow her special education students to spend about half their school days in regular classes, where teaching assistants could modify lessons on the spot, and her students’ classmates could learn acceptance and compassion.

She won’t be around next year to watch the program come undone.

New Hanover County, the coastal North Carolina district where Ms. Morgan works, will be laying off many of the teaching assistants who worked with her and other teachers throughout the 24,000-student district—victims of the “funding cliff” hitting many states and districts across the country this year. Like many districts, New Hanover County had used federal stimulus money to preserve or create special education teaching assistants’ jobs during an economic recession, but much of that money evaporates this summer.

Without the teaching assistants at Blair Elementary and other schools in the district, Ms. Morgan said, students in special education will go back to spending their day in a self-contained room where one teacher would be responsible for teaching multiple subjects to students of different ages, grade levels, and needs.

Kathy Davis, a special education assistant teacher at Blair Elementary School in Wilmington, N.C., works with a student in Julie Morgan’s class. The New Hanover County school district, where Ms. Davis works, is considering eliminating her job when federal economic-stimulus aid runs out this summer.

“I don’t want to go down with this sinking ship,” said Ms. Morgan, who has accepted a teaching job at an Atlanta charter school in the fall. “I love my children and I love this school, but this job is already hard enough.”

While many school districts across the country tapped millions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to save jobs, New Hanover and other districts used some of the money to create jobs in special education in particular. They focused on special education in part because they were already in the midst of initiatives that required more staff, such as New Hanover County’s expansion of inclusion.

Creating jobs was the mission of the money, said Mary Hazel Small, the chief financial officer for the New Hanover County district. The U.S. Department of Education’s latest estimates, from September, show that about 275,000 education jobs across the country were saved or created by ARRA.

At the Precipice

While the Education Department has touted the jobs saved or created by money from the 2009 stimulus legislation, it also advised districts to be cautious in using the money for staffing because of the funding cliff ahead when the aid ran out.

“Because ARRA funds are available for only two years, [local education agencies] should consider how to use these short-term funds to build organizational and staff capacity for sustaining reform efforts when ARRA funding ends,” the department’s guidance reads.

Now, New Hanover County is among the districts at the very precipice the Education Department warned about. Special education teachers or specialists in Fort Worth, Texas, and Orleans Parish, La., are facing similar job cuts as the stimulus money runs out.

How Much Remains?

The three main education funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are dwindling. Here’s a look at the size of each fund and how much remained unspent as of April 22.

Title I
Amount Awarded: $12,964,318,569.00
Amount Remaining: $5,359,101,206.89

Special Education
Amount Awarded: $12,200,000,000.00
Amount Remaining: $3,260,495,479.14

State Fiscal Stabilization Fund*
Amount Awarded: $48,651,427,735.65
Amount Remaining: $5,021,041,765.87

*Figures do not include the Investing in Innovation or Race to the Top awards.

Source: U.S. Department of Education

In all, New Hanover is proposing cutting 132 positions created with or sustained by stimulus dollars. Of those, 63 are special education teachers, special education assistants, or related jobs. The other 69 are jobs that were created or saved at Title I schools.

The cuts in New Hanover County aren’t yet certain; the school board won’t vote on the final budget until summer. But with sharp cuts expected to be coming from the state, it’s unlikely the district will be able to preserve the jobs.

“We have reduced 200 positions mostly through attrition without doing a reduction in force,” Ms. Small said. “I’m sure it will come to that this year.”

And “with any budget cut, we try not to have it affect the classroom,” she said, adding, however, that “some of these will.”

Although New Hanover County school employees who were hired with stimulus aid knew the jobs were likely temporary, that’s little comfort to Ms. Morgan, or to parent Sara Reider, whose young sons have disabilities.

Her older son, 1st grader Gavin, has behavioral problems. When he’s out of sorts, he’s paired with an aide, Ms. Reider said. Twice this year, when an aide wasn’t available, Gavin was sent home. She worries that could happen more next school year.

Ms. Reider also questions the decision to hire temporary staff members in the first place. Superintendent Tim Markley said he couldn’t comment on the decision because he wasn’t in his position at the time it was made.

“They hired people knowing they wouldn’t have the money to keep them here,” Ms. Reider said. “Now we have to scramble and reorganize the whole program. What do we have to show for this money?”

In Fort Worth, the school district hired 17 special education teachers using stimulus money, district spokesman Clint Bond said.

Ms. Morgan leads a group of students at Blair Elementary through a lesson. She spent five years developing a program that allowed her special education students to spend half their days in regular classrooms, supported by teaching assistants. Now that the teaching assistants are targeted for layoffs, Ms. Morgan worries that her students will have to spend their days in self-contained classes next school year.

At the time, the 80,000-student district was implementing inclusion in many schools, he said. Teachers were hired with the understanding that the positions would last two years, unless money could be found to replace the federal infusion of cash.

“We hired those 17 not anticipating the draconian cuts the state is now looking at,” Mr. Bond said. The Fort Worth teachers were told in April that their jobs would be eliminated. It’s uncertain exactly how the layoffs will affect the district’s inclusion hopes.

“People are going to have to absorb the work,” Mr. Bond said.

The situation is similar in Orleans Parish, a New Orleans school district, said Stan Smith, the chief financial officer. The 10,500-student district will cut about 30 positive-behavior specialists hired with stimulus money.

“We certainly felt like it was better to have them” even for a short time, Mr. Smith said. The employees were hired with the understanding the jobs would last only as long as the money to pay for them.

“That doesn’t make it any easier for them or for us in terms of when the money runs out,” Mr. Smith said. The challenge, he said, is to find a way to maintain those services.

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week as As the ‘Funding Cliff’ Nears, Districts Cut Special Education Jobs


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