By spring, the Gilroy Unified School District plans to educate
all its special needs students in-house
– an ambitious goal that sparked an emotional response from
several parents at a recent board meeting.
By spring, the Gilroy Unified School District plans to educate all its special needs students in-house – an ambitious goal that sparked an emotional response from several parents at a recent board meeting.
The school district currently contracts with Tucci Learning Solutions, a private agency that provides the district with staff training, parent education and individualized instruction for autistic children and students with other developmental disabilities. This year, the district will pay Tucci about $290,000 for its services in assisting with 15 children, according to district figures. But this year will be the last.
“This is something we should have in-house,” said trustee Tom Bundros. “We’ve been remiss in not doing that.”
GUSD will save a projected $1.4 million during the next five years by training its own employees to address the needs of Gilroy’s special education students. All GUSD’s special education paraprofessionals at four schools – Las Animas and Luigi Aprea elementary schools and Ascencion Solorsano and Brownell middle schools – will receive between 30 and 90 hours of training during the next few months to bring them up to speed.
Last November, district staff and trustees stated their plans to eventually phase out direct support from Tucci by this school year, replacing their services with district employees qualified to address the special education students’ behavioral needs. Since 2007, the district has gradually scaled back its contract with Tucci.
Parents of autistic children and students with other special needs spoke out against the decision at the Oct. 7 board meeting, saying the timeline was too drastic.
The duties of Tucci staff are “much more intense than I think the school district can handle,” said Jim Thomas, father of an autistic child at Las Animas. Thomas’ son has benefited from Tucci services for five years, he said. Cutting of those services could trigger expensive litigation against the district, Thomas reminded trustees.
“A free and appropriate public education is something the school district has to provide to my son,” he said. “I’m very well aware of the laws and administrative hearings that could come in the future. These administrative hearings are not cheap.”
Thomas chastised trustees for “casting aside” children with special needs in an effort to save money.
Trustee Denise Apuzzo balked at the suggestion that the school district’s own employees weren’t capable of educating its children.
“It’s insulting for somebody to stand up and say ‘I’m going to sue the school district,'” she said. “It’s insulting to say the people who we have here and who do excellent work are not capable of doing the same work that Tucci does. I have a lot more faith in the staff we have.
“This is not about the money. This is about it being in the best interests of Gilroy Unified to have our people serve our students.”
Several other parents took the microphone, reporting improvements in their children during their time in the Tucci program and expressing concern regarding continued services.
One parent said she felt as if she had been “blindsided” by the transition timeline.
Kathleen Scheid, the parent of twins – one of whom is autistic – choked back tears as she told her son’s story.
“To hear that my son is going to lose the person who is supporting him and pulling him into this world is heartbreaking,” she said.
Though she said she supported the transition, “this is too fast and too disruptive for our children,” she said. “He will shut down. This is an unrealistic amount of time to transition our children.”
Trustees assured parents they had no intention of cutting services to the district’s special needs students. Rather, they hoped to continue the good work of Tucci by training their own employees in the same methods.
Trustees approved the plan unanimously, with the caveat that they will receive regular updates from district staff regarding the progress of the transition.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is build the capacity within ourselves to be better equipped to do as good a job as Tucci,” said trustee Jaime Rosso. “I wouldn’t want to see us do anything less.”