Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Virginia says schools must provide behaviorial aides

From WSLS- TV in Va.

Dianne Jackson’s son Ronnie (pictured) just started eighth grade at Dan River Middle School — a tough time of transition for many students, but Ronnie also suffers from a form of autism.

Because of his Asperger’s, Ronnie needs a one-on-one behavioral aide to focus and perform well in school.

“The aides have been wonderful,” Jackson said. “It’s been a lifesaver for my son. He made honor roll and got into Junior Beta Club last year. My son is highly intelligent, it’s just keeping him focused on what he needs to do.”

But this spring, Jackson found out Ronnie was at risk of losing his aide because of changes in funding for that service.

Danville and Pittsylvania County schools learned this spring the local Community Policy and Management Board, which administered the state funding for behavioral aides to work in the schools, would no longer be funding those positions. Parents, worried about losing the needed help, showed up angry at school board meetings blaming the school systems for laying off those employees.

However, those aides were not employees of Danville and Pittsylvania County schools — they were contracted through local vendors, a service the community board paid for.

What changed this year is in January the state Department of Education clarified to school systems in a memo “all services and supports that are necessary to provide (a free and appropriate public education) … must be provided regardless of cost” and that school divisions maintain that responsibility.

“If a student needs a behavioral aide to remain in public school,” said Sherry Flanagan, director of the Pittsylvania County Department of Social Services and chairwoman of local board, “according to the Department of Education, it is the public school’s responsibility to provide that.”

However, the memo did not specifically address behavioral aides, leading to a delayed reaction from the schools in figuring out who should pay.

Jeff Early, assistant superintendent for support services and special education, said until this year, county schools were under the impression that funding for aides fell under the community board.

“At that time,” Early said, “it was understood that it was a local decision (how to fund the aides).”

To address the change for this year, county schools — which recently endured $8 million in budget cuts — used $455,000 in carryover money from 2009-10 to pay for 24 of the 60 previously filled aide positions, reducing the number through shifting staff and combining services.

Aides who were averaging $25,000 to $30,000 per year, according to Flanagan, had to apply for new positions with the schools at a minimum wage, or little more than $15,000 a year.

“We’ve hired the staff that we’ve needed and students are receiving the help that they need,” Early said. “… Before we did anything, we talked with all the parents that were involved and worked it out. It’s our responsibility and we are providing them.”

Bringing on the aides this year as hourly staff was a temporary solution, Early said, and the county would address future funding for aides on a case-by-case basis.

In Danville, Andy Thacker, director of exceptional children, said they too would hire their own personnel at an hourly rate to fill those needs. Last year the division had 33 aides, but Thacker said the city would hire about 20 part-time aides.

“We have to fund whatever is needed,” he said. “… We contacted all of our families at the end of last year that were affected as soon as we were made aware of how that transition was going to take place.”

Flanagan said in 2009-10 the community board spent $9 million on services in the county — $8.7 million on behavioral aides alone, second in the state only to Fairfax County. In Danville, the board spent more than $2 million on services. Comparatively, Flanagan said, Henry County spent about $500,000.

Those numbers led the state to clarify the use of CSA funds.

“We were never saying that the services were not needed,” she said. “We just determine whether or not we’re the appropriate place for the funds to come from. We take all our direction from Richmond.”

Flanagan said the schools would determine how many aides they needed and the localities would pay an 11 percent match of the cost, with the state paying the remaining 89 percent.

But with the clarification on whose responsibility those aides are, the schools will now have to pay all of the cost for those aides — potentially adding millions in required services to the already cash-strapped school divisions.

“We just want to do it right,” Flanagan said. “Ultimately the state has told us, if we spend money in a way we are not supposed to, ultimately the county could have to pay back all that money.”

Jackson is thrilled to have Ronnie’s aide, Steven Waller, back working with him — but it wasn’t without a fight, she said. As the district evaluated its aides on a case-by-case basis, Jackson said she was told that Ronnie did not need Waller anymore because he had been performing well in his evaluations and tests. But Ronnie needs continued support to continue to do well, she said.

“Nothing changed with my son,” Jackson said. “The only thing that changed was who was gonna pay for it … We did win that battle.

“I don’t care if Mr. Waller walks down the aisle with Ronnie getting his diploma,” she said, “as long as he graduates.”